Regrets and triumph as tough track lives up to its difficult reputation
Del Mar lived up to its reputation on its debut as a Breeders' Cup host, delivering blazing sunshine, a surf-flecked ocean just a few hundred yards from the finish line and an idiosyncratic track that yielded more tales of woe than the average A&E ward.
Until World Approval won the Breeders' Cup Mile – defeating Ribchester and leaving his trainer Richard Fahey bitterly disappointed – a favourite had not even placed in the opening five races of Breeders' Cup Saturday.
As a colourful sporting venue storied in showbiz history, Del Mar did not disappoint. But for a meeting that proclaims itself the World Championships, an afternoon of such often perplexing results could be regarded as a problem.
Punters might well have been tearing their hair out in frustration, at least in the early stages of Saturday's card, although that should have come as little surprise – tight and tricky tracks are about as American as apple pie and fireworks on the fourth of July.
Europeans endured a mixed evening. The raiders added wins for France's Talismanic in the Turf and Britain's Wuheida in the Filly & Mare Turf to Mendelssohn's victory for Ireland on Friday, leaving the 34-strong invasion force with one more win than they managed last year at Santa Anita.
That was no bad return by any measure, yet they were not the winners many expected from the travelling party.
In the Mile, Ribchester, Europe's champion over the distance, was handily beaten by his US counterpart World Approval, who could now bid for honours overseas after proving himself on home soil with the day's most dominant turf performance.
Ribchester finished fifth, a laudable performance considering he had a hard race in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot, finishing second, just a fortnight earlier, but it left trainer Richard Fahey rueing the decision to travel.
"If I could wind the clock back and think he was going to be fifth I wouldn't have come," a glum Fahey said. "But they're very sporting, Joe [Osborne, Godolphin chief executive] and the boss [owner Sheikh Mohammed] and they left it to me.
"I've a little bit of regret running him, because it's the first time he's been out of the frame all year."
Fahey added of Ribchester, who now heads to stud: "He's an absolute superstar. He's a very brave horse, he's been a wonderful horse to us and the boss. Let's hope he breeds horses like himself because he's tough and very quick. I'm sure he'll make a super stallion."
Highland Reel, meanwhile, was sent off 11-10 favourite for the Turf, but could only finish a fast-closing third to the Andre Fabre-trained Talismanic. The winner, a decent Group 2 horse in France, looked out of his depth in this company, but relished the conditions and track.
Third place meant the best part of £300,000 was added to Highland Reel's tally, making this slugger of a horse Europe's richest ever prize-money winner. If this closes Highland Reel's globetrotting career then it will be no disgrace of a run to bow out on, but Aidan O'Brien said connections would consider one last hurrah in Hong Kong next month.
Like O'Brien, Charlie Appleby experienced both the rough and the smooth at Del Mar. On Friday his well-regarded runner Masar endured what rider William Buick called a "nightmare run" in the Juvenile Turf, but on Saturday jockey and trainer teamed up for a stunning success in the Filly & Mare Turf with Wuheida.
A one-time Classic hope, Wuheida was unbeaten as a two-year-old but missed the spring after suffering a stress fracture. However, she has bounced back and was tremendous at Del Mar, perfectly positioned behind the leaders by Buick before powering clear inside the final furlong.
Although connections said any decision about whether she would remain in training as a four-year-old would only be made after consultation with Sheikh Mohammed, Appleby was candid about how high he hopes she can fly given another year and an uninterrupted campaign.
"I'd love to train her as a four-year-old," he said. "She's a lovely, scopey filly and everybody who set their eyes on her this week – including Sir Michael Stoute – told me what a lovely filly she's going to be as a four-year-old.
"To me, she can only get better as she gets older and really strengthens into that frame. I saw a different filly in the Prix de l'Opera to what we saw in the Matron and I think she's progressed again to the filly we've seen here. I think going forward she's going to be a very smart four-year-old."
Wuheida was Buick's first Breeders' Cup win, four years after he left the track in tears having been agonisingly denied in the final strides of the Turf on The Fugue. "It means everything to me, it's very special," he said.
"It's hard to come here. The American horses trainers and jockeys, you know, we come into their backyard and take them on every year. It's tough."
Tough indeed, and rarely has it been tougher than at Del Mar.
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