LOUISVILLE — Churchill Downs, which has already been the catalyst for many record moments in Breeders' Cup history, earned another milestone as a record 184 horses, led by champions Zenyatta and Goldikova, were pre-entered for this year's World Championships Nov. 5-6.
The number of 2010 pre-entries surpasses the previous mark of 171 for the 2008 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park. The Twin Spires have routinely held some of the more successful Breeders' Cups since it first came to Churchill in 1988. Churchill has been the site of six of the seven largest crowds in Breeders' Cup history, including the single-day record of 80,452 set in 1998.
In addition to the famous track's inherent popularity, the fact the Breeders' Cup is back on a traditional dirt surface for the first time since Monmouth Park in 2007 was cited as a key factor by horsemen and officials alike for the plethora of top-class runners slated to contest this year's event.
No horse whose final prep was on dirt managed to win a Breeders' Cup race when the event was held over Santa Anita's synthetic surface the past two years and certain owners — most notably Jess Jackson, who campaigned 2009 Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra — held back on sending some of their horses because of their disdain for synthetics.
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"I think (the dirt surface) had a great influence on (the pre-entries)," said Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who pre-entered 2009 Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird in the Dirt Mile. "I think the general consensus in talking to other trainers is it's what we all want. We're in the mecca of racing right here in Kentucky. It appeals to both coasts and of course the Europeans. I think being on a natural surface is huge, huge."
Although the overall number of horses is up, the 26 overseas contenders that were pre-entered is down from the record 37 international pre-entries last season.
Considering many turf horses often translate their form better on synthetics compared to dirt, it was not surprising to see fewer European contenders taking shots at the main-track races this year as opposed to 2009 when top grass horses like Twice Over and Rip Van Winkle contested the Classic.
In addition to the outstanding race mare Goldikova, who is aiming for an unprecedented third straight win in the Mile, Judd monte Farms is bringing back 2009 Filly and Mare Turf winner Midday to attempt to defend her crown as well as the sensational 3-year-old Workforce, who is seeking to become the first horse to win both the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Breeders' Cup Turf in the same year.
"I think the level of European participation is extremely encouraging," said Alastair Donald, director of the International Racing Bureau. "Obviously the fact we are on a dirt surface rather than synthetic has impacted slightly on the numbers, but we are massively well represented in the turf races and we do have juveniles on the main track as well. That is very encouraging."
Castleton Lyons' homebred Gio Ponti, the champion older male and champion turf male of 2009, finished second in the Classic last year. The son of Tale of the Cat was pre-entered in both the Mile and Classic with first preference in the Classic this season, but his connections said Wednesday that no decision has been made on which race he will run.
Sixteen horses were pre-entered in the Classic while 11 were pre-entered in the Mile. A maximum of 14 starters are allowed in each of the 14 Breeders' Cup races.
This year will mark a record seventh time Churchill Downs has hosted the Breeders' Cup and the first time the Louisville track has held the event since it went to a two-day format. Churchill will also host the Breeders' Cup in 2011.
Breeders' Cup officials reiterated Wednesday they are still discussing whether to go to a permanent host site for the event or use a multi-track rotation. Although Santa Anita Park was initially considered the front-runner if the organization were to go with a permanent site, the financial benefits of holding it at Churchill and the track's ability to handle large race days make it the current favorite should the Breeders' Cup go with one track.
"The biggest plus of it being at Churchill is this is the heart of horse racing and breeding country," said Greg Avioli, president and CEO of Breeders' Cup Ltd. "The Breeders' Cup's ultimate mission is to promote the horse racing industry.
"It is a promotional vehicle for breeders, it has the most and best seating and horsemen like it. Financially we've had our top performing Breeders' Cups year in and year out at Churchill Downs."