ARCADIA, Calif. — They have produced some of the more memorable performances in Breeders' Cup history, from champions such as Miesque and High Chapparal to stunners such as Arcangues.
Without question, the European-based runners have always commanded respect at the World Championships.
And thanks in part to the results of a year ago, the current group of overseas challengers might just be the most feared collection yet.
At no time in the history of the Breeders' Cup was it more of an international extravaganza than 2008. Foreign-based horses won five of the 14 races and had six runner-up finishes during the first World Championships contested over a synthetic track.
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That success was still in the forefront of many minds this year as a record 37 European horses were pre-entered for the event over the same Santa Anita Park course.
The Europeans have always been formidable in the turf races, but Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface played most favorably to those trying the main track for the first time, including the 1-2 finish by top milers Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator in last year's Classic.
Though Coolmore Stud's Group I winner Mastercraftsman has made all of his 11 career starts on the turf, the son of Danehill Dancer was deemed the 6-5 morning-line favorite when he was entered in the Dirt Mile on Tuesday.
"I think obviously, they all saw last year, the Pro-Ride surface was not dissimilar to the synthetic or all-weather surfaces that we have, and the horses did well on it," said trainer John Gosden, who won the Juvenile Turf last year with Donativum and saddled Raven's Pass. "I think it was very tempting if you had a good enough horse to come here.
"It's expensive to come here; it's expensive for the entries, but it's fantastic racing and, if you have the right horse, you go for it."
Fittingly enough, about the only horse who has challenged the champion mare Zenyatta in the battle for pre-race hype in the Classic has been Coolmore's other top Group I winning star, Rip Van Winkle.
Trained by Aidan O'Brien, who saddled Henrythenavigator to his runner-up finish a year ago, Rip Van Winkle had the misfortune of having to chase Sea The Stars for much of the year over in England. But he comes into the Classic off back-to-back wins over a mile in the Group I Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Sept. 26 and the Sussex Stakes at Goodwood on July 29.
The 3-year-old son of Galileo boasts what O'Brien calls the most natural talent of any horse he has trained, but severe foot problems have repeatedly threatened the bay colt's career.
A problem flared up again in Rip Van Winkle's right rear foot the past few weeks, but O'Brien said he has recovered.
"He got a very bad infection in his heels over the winter, and the infection got down into all his feet so ... the walls of his feet were left weak," O'Brien said. "It's amazing that he has raced at all. I've never seen a horse that has been through as much as he has and kept doing it.
"There is no doubt this is a very special horse, and there is no doubt that we never came here with a horse of his caliber. But he has had a lot of issues and, if we can get him to perform here to what he can do, he should give a good account of himself."
In his initial trip around the Santa Anita track Wednesday morning, Rip Van Winkle raised some eyebrows when he broke into a heavy lather despite the tepid temperature.
Still, O'Brien was more than thrilled with the way his star colt moved over the Pro-Ride, especially after seeing how lackluster 'Rip' looked after his flight from Europe.
"I was very worried until this morning," O'Brien said. "The journey probably took a little bit more out of him than the rest but ... the movement that he had this morning. He's never been on this surface before, but he flew over it."
In most years, a horse with chronic foot ailments who had never won beyond a mile on the turf would not be installed as the 7-2 second choice in the morning line for the Classic.
But given what transpired 12 months ago, European contenders are being viewed in a new, more revered light.
"I would say it would appear at least as strong as last year's group on paper," Ralph Beckett, trainer of defending Marathon winner Muhannak, said of the Europeans. "I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking most Europeans would prefer for (the Breeders' Cup) to be on a synthetic track every year. We're used to it, and it suits our style, the way our horses run."