The Breeders' Cup comes to Santa Anita this year for the culmination of the horse racing season, with championships at stake in 15 races over two days Friday-Saturday. The $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic is the big-ticket event, but 171 horses are entered to take a crack at more than $25 million in total purses. Here are the top stories to follow during the racing extravaganza.
Though the Breeders' Cup is being held in Arcadia, Calif., a continent away from the destruction of Hurricane Sandy, the event didn't escape the ripple effect. East Coast-based stables hustled to get their horses shipped out before the storm hit. Other horses, including undefeated 2-year-old Shanghai Bobby (pictured), had their flights grounded. To accommodate the stranded, Breeders' Cup officials waived a rule requiring horses to be on the grounds 72 hours before they race. We'll find out when the horses hit the track whether the travel headaches take their toll on any of the horses.
Just say no
The Breeders' Cup was envisioned as an international championship for the sport. And it certainly has drawn a number of fine European horses. But a truly global event? Not quite. One reason is that US racing's lax drug rules are out of step with most of the world. In an effort to change that and set an example for the sport, the Breeders' Cup is phasing out race-day use of the diuretic Lasix. Step one is that 2-year-olds such as Sky Lantern (pictured) will not be able to use it this year. Owner Mike Repole, for one, held his best 2-year-olds out of this year's Breeders' Cup in response to the ban. Will the 2-year-old races be watered down, or will this actually be a battle of the fittest and fastest, not the best medicated?
Santa Anita on trial
Santa Anita is hosting the Breeders' Cup for the sixth time, but it's the first with its current dirt racing surface. From 2007-10, Santa Anita had a state-mandated synthetic surface, purported to be safer for the horses. The surface proved to have drainage problems and got mixed reviews from horsemen. So Santa Anita switched back to dirt in December 2010, suffered a run of catastrophic injuries and has continued to fiddle with the mix of clay and sand in search of the magic formula. The racing world will be holding its breath that no such injuries occur this weekend, especially considering Santa Anita is due for a repeat performance at host in 2013.
Frankel (pictured) is the best racehorse on the planet. There's debate in Great Britain on whether he's the best racehorse ever. But he won't be at Santa Anita. The Breeders' Cup failed to entice Frankel's connections, and the colt was retired last month after winning all 14 races of his career. It's a rare European champion that switches from grass to dirt to compete in the Breeders' Cup Classic. And most winners of Europe's late-season classics usually leave the Breeders' Cup turf to the second flight. What will it take to turn the event into a true world championship? Format changes? Even more massive purses? Staging the event overseas?
Baffert vs. O'Neill
The longtime Southern California training stalwarts got a bit testy when their rivalry hit the Triple Crown trail. O'Neill's charge, I'll Have Another, bested Baffert's Bodemeister in both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. Those colts were retired prematurely because of injuries, but the trainers continued to spar. The rivalry boiled over when Baffert lost the older runner Richard's Kid to O'Neill during an ownership change, as Baffert refused to shake O'Neill's hand during the draw for the Pacific Classic last summer. Baffert (left) has 10 horses entered for the Breeders' Cup, and O'Neill (right) has seven. They go head-to-head in four races, including the Classic.
St Nicholas Abbey (pictured, No. 1) came into the 2011 Breeders' Cup Turf having run off the board in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Dismissed at 6.8-1, he powered to a 2-1/4-length victory. The lesson: Never count a European horse out in a Breeders' Cup race on the grass. St Nicholas Abbey tries again this year off an even worse loss in the Arc (11th this time vs. fifth last year). This time, he won't get only passing attention from the bettors; he's the 7-2 second choice on the morning line.
How well regarded is Royal Delta? She's the morning-line favorite for the $2 million Ladies Classic on Friday even though she is facing two unbeaten foes (My Miss Aurelia, Awesome Feather). Royal Delta (pictured) won this race as the favorite last year at Churchill Downs en route to the Eclipse Award in her division. She comes in sharp, off a 9-1/2 lenghth score in the Grade 1 Beldame at Belmont, and her connections gave serious consideration to running her in the Classic against the boys. A win here, and she's a champion again.
Coming up Rosie
In 28 previous Breeders' Cups, only one woman has ridden a winner, Hall of Famer Julie Krone. Rosie Napravnik (pictured) will have two chances to join her. She rides Kauai Kate in the Juvenile Turf on Friday and favored Shanghai Bobby in the Juvenile on Saturday. Given the increasing success of female jockeys across North America, it's almost a fluke that Krone remains unique in the Breeders' Cup. It will take an upset in the Juvenile for Napravnik not to make it a party of two.
There's no super horse in this year's Breeders' Cup Classic. But Game On Dude sure plays the part when he's on his home track of Santa Anita. Game On Dude is a perfect 5 for 5 at Santa Anita and 4 for 15 elsewhere. The 5-year-old gelding will look to erase the heartbreak of last year's Classic. Game On Dude had the lead in deep stretch, only to get nipped by the late-charging long shot Drosselmeyer. Jockey Chantal Sutherland was replaced aboard her money ride after she lost the reins and the lead in the Pacific Classic, and new jockey Rafael Bejarano guided Game On Dude to victory in their first partnership. At Santa Anita, of course.
Animal Kingdom (pictured) won the Kentucky Derby at nearly 21-1 in 2011. He would be an even more unlikely winner should he pull off a victory in the Mile on Saturday. Animal Kingdom has raced only once since June 2010, when he suffered a broken bone in a leg in the Belmont Stakes. Two screws were put in the bone, and Animal Kingdom came back to win an allowance race at Gulfstream Park last February. But a stress fracture in his pelvis put him on the shelf again. When he showed his old racing spirit upon returning to workouts, trainer Graham Motion suggested a try at the Breeders' Cup off works alone. Owner Barry Irwin said, "Why the heck not?" Should Animal Kingdom beat a field of sharpies on the grass, Motion will become an instant training legend.