Author: John Berry

THE EXCELLENT victory of Benbatl in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 at Meydan last week has highlighted him as the horse they will all have to beat in the Dubai World Cup at the end of next month. Some pundits have expressed surprise that a horse with so little experience of dirt racing (that was Benbatl’s first attempt on the surface) can be regarded as the main chance for so competitive a dirt race, but should we be concerned? The fixation that a horse is a ‘dirt horse’ or a ‘turf horse’, or that he has a ‘dirt pedigree’ or a ‘turf pedigree’ is a recent school of thought. However, it has quickly become so deeply ingrained into the collective psyche that it is easy nowadays to forget that we survived well enough for long enough with merely the concept of a ‘good horse’ (rather than a ‘good dirt horse’ or ‘good turf horse’) or a well bred one on which to base our judgements.

One of the drawbacks of the modern media is that too many pundits seem keen to ‘out analyse’ each other. This situation is surely responsible for the innovation of the ideas of there being a ‘turf horse or pedigree’ and ‘dirt horse or pedigree’ and that never the twain shall meet. But, really, it’s mostly nonsense, isn’t it? The Bluffer’s Guide to Pedigree Analysis suggests that if you peruse a horse’s pedigree and see it stuffed with the names of American horses whom you’ve never heard of, then you say that the horse has a dirt pedigree. But that didn’t stop Vincent O’Brien from pioneering the practice in the 1960s and ‘70s of heading over to the best North American yearling sales and buying the seemingly classiest young horses, nearly all of whom came from stallions and mares who had done their racing on dirt, to bring them back to Ireland to be raced on turf in Europe.

And very successful he was doing so, too. The 1970 British Triple Crown winner Nijinsky, whom he bought on behalf of Charles Englehard at the Windfields Farm Yearling Sale in 1968 for the sum of $84,000 (which made him the most expensive yearling ever sold in Canada up to that time) was his most successful selection. Nijinsky was by a top class dirt racehorse (Northern Dancer, winner on dirt in 1964 of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico and the Queen’s Plate at Woodbine) out of a top class dirt racehorse (Flaming Page, winner of the 1962 Queen’s Plate). Other horses of nearly similar merit followed.

The 1977 Derby, Irish Derby and King George VI And Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes winner The Minstrel (a $200,000 yearling) was also by Northern Dancer, out of a half-sister to Nijinsky. The 1982 Derby winner Golden Fleece (a $775,000 yearling) was by the ‘dirt bred’ Nijinsky from out of the unraced Exotic Treat, a half-sister to the top class dirt filly What A Treat, whose dam Rare Treat was as seasoned a dirt performer as one could find, finishing in the first three in 50 out of her 101 starts. Be My Guest, a record priced yearling who was good enough to run in the 1977 Derby and then became Coolmore’s first Champion Sire by topping the General Sires’ Table of Great Britain and Ireland in 1982, was very closely related to Golden Fleece, being by Northern Dancer out of What A Treat.

The 1983 2000 Guineas winner Lomond (a $1,500,000 foal) was a Northern Dancer half-brother to the 1977 US Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. The full-brothers Try My Best and El Gran Senor (winners of the Dewhurst Stakes in 1977 and 1983 respectively, with El Gran Senor going on to take the 2000 Guineas and Irish Derby at three) were by Northern Dancer from the unraced Sex Appeal, who was by the outstanding dirt horse Buckpasser from Best In Show, whose five wins were headed by her triumph on the dirt track at Aqueduct in the Comely Stakes in 1968. And the list went on and on, to the extent that we now revere Northern Dancer as having been one of the greatest ‘turf sires’ of all time, while completing overlooking the fact that he did all his racing on dirt.

Why shouldn’t dirt horses be similarly effective on turf? All the horses with supposedly dirt pedigrees trace back to horses chosen for export to the USA for stud duties there because of the merit which they had shown in Europe, on turf! The horse who can be regarded as arguably the greatest dirt performer of all time, Secretariat, was a son of Bold Ruler, whose sire Nasrullah was placed in the Derby. The horse who arguably achieved more on dirt in the USA than any other horse, five time Horse of the Year Kelso, was a son of Your Host, both of whose grandsires (Hyperion and Mahmoud) won the Derby. The idea of a dirt horse is just as questionable as the idea of a dirt pedigree. In advance of the 1997 Dubai World Cup, Singspiel was clearly the best horse in the race so it was no surprise that he won it, despite the fact that he had never raced in dirt previously.

Three years later Dubai Millennium was in the same position and he went on to post one of the best wins ever seen in any dirt race, notwithstanding that he had only run on the surface once previously. If one horse since Secretariat (who, of course, won on turf as well as dirt during his epic Triple Crown winning, record breaking 3yo campaign) could have been said to have put in a performance similarly ‘jaw dropping’ to Dubai Millennium’s Dubai World Cup victory, it was Arazi in the 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, on his first run on dirt. So if you enjoyed watching Benbatl win so well last week, don’t waste too much time agonising over whether he should be regarded as a top class dirt horse or a top class turf horse. Just enjoy him for what he is: a top class horse.

Class Tells – Whatever The Surface