11/05/2012 11:26PM

Day 2 and Beyond


Frank Stronach leaned on the railing at the mouth of the Santa Anita saddling enclosure last Saturday afternoon, admiring the horses preparing to run in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf. Stronach is usually a difficult read, but you could tell he was enjoying the view, when suddenly a senior security official began herding the gathered throng out of the enclosure, worried that the Japanese horse Trailblazer would throw another fit.

"Sir, would you move back please." This was directed at Stronach. "Sir, please move back."

Stronach gave a little wince, chosing to believe the request was directed at someone else. Anyway, it was obvious the security official was unaware Stronach owned not only the saddling enclosure but the racetrack surrounding it. Someone whispered this in his ear, and he made a quick pivot to busy himself with the rest of the crowd. Trailblazer, for his part, decided to behave. The crisis passed.

"How's the election going back in Austria?" Stronach was asked. While not hosting a Breeders' Cup at his flagship California track, he is running for president of his native land at the head of the newly formed political entity, Team Stronach.

"Good. Good," he replied. "We're getting more support every day."

And will there be other candidates for down ticket offices running under the Team Stronach banner?

"No, no," Stronach said. "Just me. It's my party."

Just like the Breeders' Cup. With the event locked up at Santa Anita for 2014 as well, Stronach will have the game's most extravagant event in his back pocket for the foreseeable future. And do not think for a moment he will be satisfied with merely back-to-back runnings as host of the Cup. There is already a full-court press to anoint Santa Anita as the permanent Breeders' Cup venue, and given the shrinking pool of viable candidate racetracks, who's to say it won't happen?

Certainly, no one will argue with the weather -- this year a gentle 80 -- or the setting. Santa Anita, for all its architectural idiosyncracies, still works well when confronted by a crowd in the 50,000 range (Saturday's was an announced 55,123). Regular paying customers would have been even more comfortably accommodated if Breeders' Cup officials had not converted a huge chunk of the public area into a VIP sanctuary that was, at best, woefully under-populated throughout most of both the Friday and Saturday cards. No one begrudges anyone the spoils of privilege, earned or otherwise. Heck, I know freeloaders who got in there with an ordinary media badge. But those of us who cherish the physical reality of Santa Anita as much as its history are deeply aware that those spacious, statue-studded, formal gardens behind the grandstand are every bit as important to the experience as the view of the San Gabriel Mountains from the other side.

Under Stronach's ownership, some big bites already have been taken out of the aesthetic pleasures of the gardens to accommodate the twin, box-like elevator towers leading to the modern FrontRunner restaurant. There is also a multi-purpose slab of concrete jutting out from beneath the grandstand porch where once benches and hedges harmed no one, and while those two huge video screen flanking the walking ring are fan-friendly, one of them crowds in its shadow the bronze busts of four great American horsemen: Bill Shoemaker, John Longden, Laffit Pincay and Chris McCarron.

The Breeders' Cup essentially took the paddock gardens and did what they could to make the space as unlike Santa Anita as possible. Non-VIP fans would no longer have access to the terraces overlooking the saddling enclosure. Specialty food tents surrounded the Kinsbury Fountain, creating unnecessary bottlenecks and cramping the perspective of those two majestic, life-size statues of Zenyatta and John Henry, as well as the smaller but just as splendid Breeders' Cup Ecorche Horse. The less said the better about the three-dimensional, "interactive" mural commissioned by the Cup and installed near the walking ring, other than you could hardly see the numbers through the paint, and you could stand on it and git yer picher took.

Though seized by a need to market madly, the Breeders' Cup still pays proper attention to the presentation of its Thoroughbred stars. Accommodating all of the owners, breeders and friends of participants is a task daunting beyond belief, and the pleasures continue to far outweigh the complaints. Most of the credit, of course, goes to the horses, unfailingly the stars of a show that was a ridiculously ambitious idea to begin with, 30 years ago. That an organization can assemble and manage, with the help of a host track, such a wide disparity of equine talent and their two-legged handlers is nothing short of a miracle. And they do it every year.

By the end of business on Saturday, 15 different trainers and 13 different jockeys had won the 15 Breeders' Cup events conducted over the two days. The muscle-bound Saturday card offered up a course record 1:31.78 in the Mile by Wise Dan (the mark had stood for 15 years) and what might as well be a course record 2:22.83 by Little Mike for the mile and one-half Turf, since there is no telling how fast Hawkster really ran in 1989 when he bounced around a brand new grass course in the Oak Tree Invitational in 2:22 4/5. In the modern parlance of hundredths they've been calling it 2:22.80, but we know that could be nothing more than a rounding error. I say give it to Mikey, or at least a share.

Anyone wondering if the heavily-watered sand that made up the Santa Anita main track -- courtesy of Stronach's bi-coastal superintendent Ted Malloy -- was trending more toward the heavy lifting of an eastern surface than the glib pasteboards of the traditional West got a pretty solid answer from Royal Delta, Shanghai Bobby, Trinniberg and Groupie Doll, and especially from the sight of Whitney winner Fort Larned gutting out a tough decision over Suburban winner Mucho Macho Man in the Classic. Then again, they all looked pretty good going in.

As for Horse of the Year, Wise Dan has become everyone's favorite flavor after his dusting of Animal Kingdom, Excelebration and Moonlight Cloud in the Mile. And why not? After three consecutive years of females taking the golden trophy -- Rachel A., Zenyatta and Havre de Grace -- affirmative action is getting old. Time for the fellas to take back the prize, and who better than this 5-year-old son of Wiseman's Ferry who has been a troubled head short of perfect over six starts and three different surfaces in calendar 2012. Wise Dan is the kind of guy's guy you can count on the help you move your fridge or give you that ride to the airport at 6 a.m. And if it bothers anybody that he'd be the first gelding to win Horse of the Year in 28 years -- too bad. If John Henry had been a miler, he would have been Wise Dan.