Despite questions that have swirled around Santa Anita Park's new Pro-Ride surface this year, a record 180 horses — including reigning Horse of the Year Curlin — have been pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup World Championships to be held Oct. 24 and 25 at the Arcadia, Calif. track.
It will be the first time the Breeders' Cup has been run over a synthetic surface and, while many expressed dismay over that decision, it succeeded in luring the largest contingent of international horses the event has seen.
A record 35 horses from overseas have been pre-entered, led by the multiple Group I-winning Coolmore duo of Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator. Both are scheduled to take on Curlin in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
With a combined nine Group I wins between them this year, Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator are both conditioned by Aidan O'Brien, who leads all trainers with 10 horses pre-entered.
Another European invader, Raven's Pass, who defeated Henrythenavigator in the Group I Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, is slated to start in the Classic, as is Japanese-based Grade II winner Casino Drive, who had to miss this year's Belmont Stakes with a hoof injury.
Much of the credit for the increased international presence has been given to the Pro-Ride surface because the form of turf horses often translates extremely well on synthetic tracks.
"I think the point has been made that the artificial surface might be a factor in that we've got three proven turf horses from Europe that have all committed themselves to having a go of it in the Classic," Alastair Donald, director of the international racing bureau, said during a national teleconference Thursday. "That perhaps is something we wouldn't have seen a few years back."
In addition to acknowledging the surface, Breeders' Cup President Greg Avioli also gave a nod to a more determined recruiting effort this season.
"I think it's of critical importance for the Breeders' Cup to remain a world championship and, after last year, we spent a lot of time thinking about what we could do better to bring more Asian and European horses into our event," Avioli said. "No question the synthetic surface has increased that number, but it's also a fact we spent more time recruiting horses in Europe than we have done before."
With the exception of the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic (formerly known as the Distaff), which drew the smallest field with eight horses, all the races on the two-day card had full fields, and eight were oversubscribed.
A maximum of 14 horses are allowed for each race expect the Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Dirt Mile, which are limited to 12.
Curlin, who recently became the all-time leading North American-based money earner with $10,246,800, cemented his Horse of the Year campaign a year ago when he rolled to a 41/2-length win in the Classic.
The 4-year-old son of Smart Strike has never started over a synthetic track, but trainer Steve Asmussen said he's been impressed with the way the colt has moved during his workouts since arriving at Santa Anita.
"The moment he came on the track (on Monday) I was extremely proud of the fact I could not believe how good he looks after he has made $10 million," Asmussen said. "That is who Curlin is, and ... he has spoiled us with that look and feel throughout his career."
While the Ladies' Classic will have the smallest field, it also has one of the deepest. Champion Ginger Punch is back to defend her title in the race, but the expected favorite will be Zenyatta, who is unbeaten in eight career starts, including three Grade I wins.
Champion Indian Blessing, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies last year, returns in the Filly and Mare Sprint while the Breeders' Cup Turf features two former winners of the race in Better Talk Now (2004) and Red Rocks (2006).
Although the Breeders' Cup has shifted all of its female races to the Friday card this year, two top distaffers in Goldikova and Precious Kitten have been pre-entered with first preference in the Breeders' Cup Mile on the Saturday card.
Goldikova enters off two straight Group I victories in France while Precious Kitten is a multiple Grade I winner.