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Day 2 and Beyond
By Jay Hovdey
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.
Wise Dan is much more than a miler. Check out his PP's. He ran the fastest Beyer of the year at 9F on synthetic. He tops both grass and dirt/synthetic Beyer lists, )and the top 3 on grass). Can run and win on anything. Quite a horse...a real through back to the days of the great geldings like Kelso, Forego and John Henry. Time will tell if he gets near that level.
Santa Anita's turf track didn't look big enough for a big field. They're just asking for a spill.
Is the Breeders Cup is going to have a permanent home it will be Churchill Downs. Wait and see. It's the fairest track for all horses from all states. Part of the reason the Kentucky Derby is so big is because it is in a neutral location. No way the Derby becomes the race that it is today if its run in California or New York. Why should horses based in New York or Florida have to go to Cali for the Breeders Cup every year? They shouldn't.
I did not like the change of fencing off a large section of the south paddock gardens. On Saturday there were a few people mingling in that area and everywhere else around the walking ring people were standing 10 deep. Not the most fan-friendly idea. I hope they do away with that in 2013 and 2014.
If Hovdey is implying that the Breeders Cup is going be held at Santa Anita in 2013 AND 2014, I will scheduling a Caribbean fall cruise for the next two years! I can not imagine anything more depressing and boring than having to sit through the next two years watching the BC at Santa Anita with its hard, speed-favoring main track and the one-dimensional racing it produces....and the extremely short fields by BC standards won't help things one bit.
I would not be so sure about Santa Anita being the permanent site, if there is one. If we have a permanent site, Churchill Downs has two BIG advantages: 1. The sales at Keeneland are the week after the BC and could easily be adjusted to allow the BC to take place one week later if need be, as everyone is already in Kentucky for that. 2. Churchill Downs has LIGHTS, which I think is going to become a requirement for ALL BC tracks in the future, including the 2013 edition. Santa Anita in my view WILL have to install lights if it wants to keep the 2013 BC as they are supposed to (as will NYRA for Belmont Park if they want the BC to return to New York), as I feel NBC will insist on that so they can have the Saturday BC telecast extend to cover all of Saturday prime time, running from at least 8:00-11:00 PM ET (if not all of Saturday from most likely 4:30-11:00 PM ET) along with an hour on Friday from 10:00-11:00 PM ET. As sports being the only thing that does well in Saturday Prime Time on network TV continues to be a rapidly growing trend, NBC knows an event like the Breeders' Cup can only help NBC hold its own on at least the Saturday night it is taking place, even as was the case this year as the BC Classic was opposite the following: Alabama-LSU on CBS (most watched college football game of 2012 to date) Oregon-USC on FOX (FOX's highest rated college football game so far) Oklahoma State-Kansas State on ABC a NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Texas Motor Speedway on ESPN. The BC Classic seeing its rating double from last year even with that is a very good sign for the future on NBC and is why I think we will see the BC go all the way through prime time in 2013, with Santa Anita losing the 2013 BC (and any chance at future BCs) unless lights are installed there (and ironically, that could be what leads to Hollywood Park NOT closing). That is why I think Churchill Downs may become the almost-permanent site for the BC unless another major track capable of racing at night makes a serious bid to host the BC with the condition it can go to at least 11:00 PM ET.
Glad I wagered online, as I have no interest in being treated like a peon with all the "VIP" nonsense in force. Won a decent pick 4...drank my own ice cold, cheap beer...did a little work between races...and didn't have to endure the freeway between San Diego and Arcadia. Yeah, I would've enjoyed being near the finish line at the end of Royal Delta's wire job--but the "overhead" is prohibitive!
Can someone explain to me why the prices for Exactas, Tri's, and Super's have been so much less than at Churchill? I'm including 2008 and 2009 as well, compare those three years with 2010 and 2011 at Churchill.
I wouldn't be California dreaming just yet. Anybody notice how bad the Europeans did in the turf races? Maybe it was an off year for them, but the Americans dominated and I am sure the Euros will blame the pool table turf surface at Santa Anita or the pleasant weather of SoCal. If the Euros starts complaining, Churchill Downs here we come.
To commit to a venue 2 years out is a mistake...