11/06/2009 2:29PM

Day One


On the way to Santa Anita Friday morning, during a pit stop at a Quik-E-Mart, a video screen behind the counter displayed a graphic filled with the images of racing horses asking customers to buy five bucks worth of Hot Spot plays and enter A New Breed of Winners, hooked to the results of the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita. First prize is $50,000.

A few miles down the road, attached to a late model German vehicle cruising up ahead, was a vanity license plate that read "L8 CLSR" in a frame adorned with "NTRA--Talk Derby to Me."

Tiring of Car Talk, I did some serious Sirius dial-flipping on the old radio. The first selection that came up was by Radiohead (post 11, Breeders' Cup Juvenile, picked fourth by Brad Free at 15-1). A couple tunes later it was The Breeders doing "Cannonball" (post 6, Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, picked on top by Free at 8-1).

Who says horse racing isn't mainstream? At least for today and tomorrow.

The combination of benign weather and grand setting has always made Santa Anita the best place for an event like the Breeders' Cup. Whether or not the track can survive the brutal domestic public relations from a second straight presentation over its Pro-Ride synthetic main course is problematic. The Euros may love it for their grass horses who want to play on sand, but as far as a growing chorus of American fans are concerned, no playing field since the days of threadbare Astroturf has suffered such organized denegration. Last year, when the Breeders' Cup went two whole days without a fatality, critics were momentarily silenced. This time around, after another year of rocky evidence as to the efficacy of synthetics, even a death-free Breeders' Cup won't be enough to quell the call for a return to dirt.

Memories, though, are embarrassingly short. It was in 1986 that horsemen and horseplayers left the first Santa Anita/Oak Tree Breeders' Cup shaking their heads in frustration. Four of the five main track races were won by horses either pressing close or setting the pace, while quality closers spun their wheels in fruitless pursuit. Brave Raj, the Juvenile filly winner, was the exception, sitting fourth, pouncing and drawing off to win by 5 1/2 (she never raced at three). Otherwise, you needed the style of Lady's Secret, Smile, Capote or Skywalker to deal with what was criticized as speed biased in the extreme.

It is a noble goal to hope that every Breeders' Cup race will have not only a positive pari-mutuel impact, but also mean something in the context of championship Thoroughbred history. Doesn't always work that way, and especially not when the racing surfaces are called into some kind of question (see the sodden runnings of Monmouth, Lone Star, and Belmont in 1995, or Churchill Downs in 2006, when the main track rail was the only place to be). Man or nature--take your pick. Something or someone is always tinkering with the ground.

In a perfect world--one in which upwards of $25 million had not been spent on California's synthetic experiment--this weekend's eight main track Breeders' Cup events would have been played out on soft, sandy loam with minimal kickback, watered just right and spread over a forgiving base. Someday, this could still happen. And then there will be health care reform.