Sighs of relief cap horse racing's difficult year

ARCADIA, Calif. — The Breeders' Cup produced upsets, exciting finishes and most importantly to the image-battered horse racing industry, an incident-free two days of action.

The debate about synthetic surfaces, well, that's still raging.

Also still up for discussion is Horse of the Year, with undefeated Ladies' Classic winner Zenyatta making a case for the year-end honor.

Curlin has a chance to repeat as Horse of the Year despite his fourth-place finish as the favorite in the $5 million Classic, won by Raven's Pass from Britain.

"Our affections for him are not going to waver," trainer Steve Asmussen said Sunday. "With Curlin, nothing is a consolation. We're just proud of who he is."

The Eclipse Award won't be given out until January, but trainer John Shirreffs believes Zenyatta strengthened her case for the honor. The last female to win the award was Azeri in 2002.

"It's quite an accomplishment to go all year undefeated, and to step up each time, four of them in Grade I, like she did," Shirreffs said of the 4-year-old filly, unbeaten in nine starts, seven of them this year. "In the vote, she would have to be seriously considered for that."

In 14 races over two days, horses won from on the lead, from mid-pack and, in the case of Zenyatta and Stardom Bound, from well behind. Upsets ruled this year, with only two favorites winning Saturday.

The races — run under a steroid ban for the first time — went off without injury to horses or jockeys, a major relief to the industry, which has been roundly criticized about steroid use, treatment of the animals, and fatal injuries this year.

"Racing has had a difficult year in this country," said John Gosden, who trains Raven's Pass. "All in all, it was a real celebration of racing and the best of racing. I think that's exactly what American racing needed from the Breeders' Cup and they got it."

The five blankets of purple and yellow flowers presented to the European winners hung on a balcony overlooking the quarantine barn Sunday.

Staging Thoroughbred racing's richest two days on a mixture of rubber, fibers and sand lured a record number of foreign entries, and their success could bring even more next year, when the Breeders' Cup returns to Santa Anita.

"I should think it will be tough getting in the races next year," said Gosden, who also trains Juvenile Turf winner Donativum.

"With the main track, you'll have them all trying to run next year. Then we go to Churchill Downs (in 2010) and it's a different ballgame (on dirt). There is nothing wrong with that. That's healthy. Muhammad Ali fought in the jungle, he fought in Manila, he fought everywhere. The same with horses."

Veteran trainers Bob Baffert, Bobby Frankel, D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito (who stayed away) all have been outspoken in their dislike of synthetic surfaces, already installed at all of California's major racetracks.

Baffert won the Juvenile with Midshipman and the Sprint with Midnight Lute for the second year in a row. Frankel won the Filly & Mare Sprint with Ventura.

"I think the track has played very fair and I haven't heard a single complaint. You usually hear a lot of them when there's a problem," Breeders' Cup President Greg Avioli said.

"Dirt tracks will continue to be around for a long time — both as a function of tradition and economics — but synthetic surfaces will continue to be important."

Curlin returning to Churchill

LOUISVILLE — Reigning Horse of the Year Curlin will be returning to Churchill Downs in Louisville after his fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Curlin is scheduled to arrive in Louisville on Monday, two days after running fourth to Raven's Pass at Santa Anita on Saturday. Curlin will return to Steve Asmussen's barn at the track. There was no indication Sunday as to whether he will be retired or return to the track.

Curlin earned $255,000 for his fourth-place finish to push his North American record for career earnings to $10,501,800.