10/24/2008 11:00PM

BC Journal: "Breakfast beer, right here"


Jay Hovdey, Oct. 25:

ARCADIA, Calif. - "Breakfast beer, bloody Mary, right here."

It must be Breeders' Cup Day. Since California is three hours behind where really important things happen, and because the show has to be over before Game 3 of the Series begins, breakfast beer is a must, preferably with nachos attached. First post of 10:10 a.m. for the Marathon assures a long, hot day of consumption, while the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint must surely be the only million-dollar race in the world run before 11 o'clock in the morning. . . .

The Mike Mitchell family has had one of those roller-coaster weeks. First the death of Mike's father, Earl, who was one of those old-time California horse trainers who could go toe to to with the likes of Farrell Jones and Charlie Whittingham, morning or night, and never miss a stride. Mitchell's daughter Shey sang the national anthem to kick off the Saturday festivities, and hit all the high notes. Then Mitchell sent out Church Service and Big Booster to finish second and third in the inaugural Marathon, just missing to the Euro longshot Muhannak. . . .

For those who have Chester House in the Breeders' Cup stallion drinking game, enjoy. He had Ventura win the Filly-Mare Sprint at seven furlongs and Muhannak at 12 furlongs in the Marathon. . . .

Apparently, the terrorist threat to horse racing is no longer on high alert. Five years ago, when Santa Anita last hosted the Cup, metal detectors and security checks created massive bottlenecks, especially at the grandstand entrance. This time around, an occasional patron will be wanded if he, or she, sticks out from the crowd. Otherwise, just come on in.

There was the obligatory sweep by the LAPD bomb squad on Thursday night, before the two-day festival began. This is a good thing for Breeders' Cup management. Your event is really nothing special unless you have a bomb sweep.

Internal security was high inside the track, though, primarily because the governor himself was planning to pay a visit. Arnold Schwarzenneger, who encouraged fans to spend their cash in California via taped message on Friday, had reserved seats in the horsemen's mezzanine, but he did not arrive in time for the Marathon.

Besides the bomb squad, other uniforms on the scene included the traditional Santa Anita security crew, Arcadia Police, L.A. County Harbor Police, Burbank Fire Department, and, in a quaint display of signage, the CHRB Police, primarily patrolling the backstretch.

"It's an issue of visibility," said senior investigator Mike Kilpack of the California Horse Racing Board. "We want people to know we're here." . . .

After Desert Code upset the inaugural BC Turf Sprint, someone figured out that a $100 flat win bet on each of the 12 Breeders' Cup starters (three of them winners) trained by David Hofmans would net $19,801. Of course, that's in 2008 dollars.

The guy wearing the Desert Code cap an hour after the race was accused of being on the past-post bandwagon. Not so, said Phil Needham.

"I've had it on all morning," he said.

Needham and his wife, Judy, were guests of Dave Hofmans and patrons as well. They have a yearling by E Dubai, Desert Code's sire, who will be going to Hofmans next year. More to the point, the Needhams also are the co-breeders of Mine That Bird, the Canadian stakes winner set to run in the BC Juvenile later in the day.

"We were at Woodbine when David won with Alphabet Soup and here when he won with Adoration," Judy Needham said. "It looks like we'll be coming from now on." . . .

Eddie Delahoussaye was in the house, enjoying the day. Jerry Bailey was doing ESPN/ABC and Gary Stevens was doing HRTV, while Laffit Pincay, Angel Cordero, and Pat Day have been on hand to celebrate their memorable three-way rumble in the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup Classic, at Hollywood Park, in 1984. Among the six Hall of Famers, they won 53 Breeders' Cup races.

Long after her race on Friday, Pincay was still buzzing about Zenyatta's victory in the Ladies' Classic. He had to go back 34 years to summon a filly he rode that was even comparable.

"There was a filly called Desert Vixen," Pincay began. He almost said "once upon a time," and it would have been okay. Desert Vixen won 13 races, including the Beldame twice, once by 8 1/2 lengths and once by 12. Pincay was aboard for four races at the end of her 4-year-old season when they won the Maskette, Beldame, and Matchmaker in succession. Like most aficionados, Pincay remembers the gallant loss, in the 1974 Spinster.

"She was unbelievable," he went on. "But she would try to get out like a sonofabitch. She blew the turn at Keeneland that day and still almost won the race." Summer Guest beat her a head. . . .

There was an impromptu Charlie Whittingham reunion of sorts on Saturday when Peggy and Charlene Whittingham, Charlie's wife and daughter, crossed paths with Chris Speckert, who finished second with Pleasant Tap in the Sprint and the Classic, and Alex Hassinger, who trained Breeders' Cup winners Eliza and Anees.

Speckert was Whittingham's traveling assistant and Hassinger was an all-around hand who, among other things, ponied Sunday Silence to the post for the 1989 Kentucky Derby. Speckert still trains, but Hassinger has gone corporate as a national representative of the joint supplement Lubrysin and soon will be moving to Texas, near San Antonio.

"We were sponsoring a cutting horse competition and I was going to ride a horse for John Carter and his son, Punk Carter," Hassinger said. "They asked me if I'd ever ridden before. I told them yes, a pony at the racetrack and show jumpers when I was younger. John said I'd be all right, but Punk was skeptical. After I cut out a few, Punk said I did okay. He asked me, 'Who'd you say you were again?' I hate to use it, but I said, 'Punk, you ever hear of the Breeders' Cup? I won two of them.' He got wide-eyed. 'Why didn't you say so?' Next thing I knew I was out riding at his ranch." . . .

By early afternoon, even more security forces were in place as the governor's arrival neared. This time, it was the Monrovia police wearing some kind of camouflage. Among the unofficial outfits seen on the day included a New York Rangers jersey (Messier, who else?), a cap that read New York Mafia, and a T-shirt bearing the message: "Fighting Amish Football - Football the Old-Fashioned Way." . . .

By the time Donativum won the Juvenile Turf in a photo with fellow Euro Westphalia, Alistair "Duck" Donald of the International Racing Bureau was breathing much easier. Donald is the den mother of the traveling circus, and after Friday's shutout things were looking kind of bleak as Saturday unfolded. Muhannak's win in the $500,000 Marathon was small consolation, and Diabolical was caught right at the end of the Turf Sprint. Then came Goldikova and Donativum.

"We'd like this next one coming up, though," Donald said. "We'd like to take home the Turf. You can have the Classic. Wouldn't want to be greedy."

Jay Hovdey, Oct. 24:

With an announced crowd of 31,257, there were good reserved seats left midway down the stretch Friday afternoon in the Santa Anita grandstand for Day One of the Breeders' Cup festival. There were great spots on the grandstand steps for last-minute walk-in customers, for a pop of just $20 at the gate. And there were plenty of places to spread out and roam in the infield, a place absolutely made for a hot autumn day at the races.

And what other sport mixes the players with the fans to such a flamboyant degree? There was Jonathan Sheppard, just behind the winner's circle, standing on the steps near a large concrete planter with his wife, Cathy, as Forever Together made her way to the gate for the Filly and Mare Turf.

"Where are you from?" wondered a fan when she overheard them talking.

"England," said Sheppard, who has been training in America more than 40 years.

"I LOVE the English," said the fan. "I just love the way you talk." Sheppard offered a polite smile. He gets that all the time. He was also fretting right up to the moment his filly entered the gate.

"I wonder how well Julien knows the course," he wondered, referring to his jockey, Julien Leparoux. "It's not a very long run down the hill to the main course, is it? Does anyone have any water?"

A bottle was provided, as if by magic, and Sheppard was left to think of other things. He watched the race old school, through vintage binoculars, as Cathy followed the action on the infield board. There was a noticeable knitting of Sheppard's brow beneath his trademark cap as Forever Together seemed to lose touch with the leaders entering the far turn. But then, in the best optical illusion of the day, Leparoux produced the gray Forever Together from behind the grayer Wait a While at a key moment in the upper stretch, and the race was on. Forever Together got up to beat Canada's Sealy Hill by three-quarters of a length. Leparoux did not bother with the whip.

Sheppard was immediately attacked by a joyous Cathy, who sobbed and hung from her husband's neck as he tried to stumble down the terrace steps toward the winner's circle.

"Twenty-three years later and we finally got it right," Sheppard said, referring to his near miss with Storm Cat in the 1985 BC Juvenile at Aqueduct. Cathy Sheppard was Storm Cat's exercise rider. . . .

When it comes to watching his horses run, John Shirreffs is a world-class recluse. He uses the crowd for cover, and usually he gets to be as anonymous as he wants to be, his Mill Ridge Farm cap pulled low, with a glimmer of recognition only from the occasional backstretch familiar. On Friday, though, as Zenyatta took to the track for the $2 million Ladies' Classic, things were definitely different. Her trainer found himself in the thick of the crowd, not far from the Sheppards' perch one race earlier. Shirreffs was beseiged by autograph seekers (okay, four), which he accommodated with a smile, all the while keeping an eye on the infield video board that was devoting a lot of screen time to Zenyatta.

"Look at that - my hand's not shaking," he said, amazed.

As the field approached the gate, Shirreffs found himself planted quite by accident directly in front of a large film camera, just about the last place in the world he wanted to be. He moved, and the camera man moaned, "Please stay!" Shirreffs shook his head and shifted his ground.

A few moments later, as Zenyatta swept to the lead on the outside with Mike Smith aboard, Shirreffs chanted a muted, "Come on, Mikey. Come on, Mikey," then turned began walking parallel to the track with his head down, emotions looking for a place to fly. Fans pointed to him and cheered as racetrackers latched onto his blue blazer. Zenyatta beat Godolphin's Cocoa Beach by a length and a half, with Godolphin's Music Note third.

"All that standing and walking really paid off, didn't it?" Shirreffs grinned as exercise rider Steve Willard gave him a hug.

Later, in the test barn, Zenyatta and Cocoa Beach strolled around the ring, cooling down. They were tired, but they'd earned the right. Rick Mettee, the Godolphin assistant who has handled Cocoa Beach and Music Note in New York, entered and shook his head.

"The one year we bring two mares to this race," he said, "and we run into her."

Marcus Hersh, Oct. 25:

ARCADIA, Calif. – Scott Blasi sat in the office of Barn 27 about 8 on Saturday morning and busied himself polishing a worn pair of high-topped Johnston and Murphy dress shoes.

“I last wore them for the Jockey Club Gold Cup,” Blasi said, as across the room, exercise rider Carlos Rosas tried to figure out where in the world the Breeders’ Cup had found the riding helmets with the strangely long brims. “These shoes have a lot of miles on them,” said Blasi, as it became more apparent that the affect of those miles was not going to be simply polished away. Which made sense. Blasi has worn the shoes for all of Curlin’s races, and Curlin has logged almost 19,000 miles of travel this year, going from New Orleans to Dubai to Kentucky to New York, and now here, to California.

“Strong, very strong,” Blasi said, asked how Curlin seemed Saturday morning. For activity, the horse had only walked the path just outside his stall; now, he was down, fast asleep in it.

Blasi, Steve Asmussen’s trusty assistant, has been by Curlin’s side all those miles, just as he was at Monmouth Park a year ago on this same kind of Breeders’ Cup morning.

“Last year, I felt like we had a lot to prove,” Blasi said. “I’m glad they all showed up together, Street Sense, and Hard Spun, Any Given Saturday. At this point, with all the traveling he’s done, I’d love to win on the West Coast. But I don’t feel like Curlin owes us anything. He’s never disappointed us. I’m just glad I’m leading him over there, not someone else.”

One other thing hung over the still-quiet shed row – the sizable chance that this would be Curlin’s last hurrah. Not knowing whether that would be the case or not, Blasi said he had given the possibility little thought.

“I guess I’ll think about it more afterward,” said Blasi, who waited a moment, and went on. “I’m only 35 years old. But I guess you really do wait your whole life to be around one like him.”

Two stalls down from the office, Curlin had awakened. As usual, he was looking out his stall window – the competition was out there somewhere.

“Little man, are you all right?”

A man less than five feet tall stepped out of a black Cadillac that pulled up to Ron McAnally’s barn. He wore a red sport coat and a red cravat, thin hair slicked back over a large head.

Pete Anderson went to the barn’s back shed row to look in on his one-horse stable, a bulky gray horse named Delightful Kiss, who had a date in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Marathon about an hour later.

Delightful Kiss had more depth across his body than Forego, but Forego was taller and longer, Anderson said. This was after a visitor had checked to make sure he had his facts straight, that Anderson, the longtime East Coast-based rider, had indeed ridden Forego in the Derby.

“Forego was 17 hands 1,” Anderson said. “This guy is a little shorter. I ought to have the vet measure him.”

Anderson rode mainly in New York, and after what happened to him here at Santa Anita during a brief California foray, it is a wonder he agreed to come back.

“I had a spectacular spill out here,” Anderson recalled. “I was on a horse that crashed through the outside fence. He missed hitting the clubhouse by 10 feet, then went down this 37-foot embankment. Don’t know how, but somehow I got away without a scratch. I climbed back up the hill, you know, holding onto some bushes. The first person I saw is Eddie Arcaro. His head came over the edge of the embankment and he says, “Little man, are you all right?”

Delightful Kiss had a strong 3-year-old season in 2007, but went bad before the fall rolled round. It took a few starts, but Anderson got him right again this year, in time for a trip back out West.

“I wanted to run him in the Breeders’ Cup last year, but this is fine,” said Anderson, 76. “I always said I’d love to get back out there one more time before the lights went out.”

Anderson went into Delightful Kiss’s stall and touched the big horse’s legs. “Cold as ice – just like I wanted.”

"This thing's all over"

I walked out of the Santa Anita backstretch for what I assume will be the last time this trip a little after 9 on Saturday morning. A guy with stringy gray hair chatted me up briefly as I leaned on a cement wall outside Bobby Frankel’s barn. “One more day and this thing’s all over,” he said. “Get all the guys in monkey suits out of here.”

Atop a barn across a main backstretch thoroughfare, five pigeons preened and clucked on a roof. Below them were living quarters, a couple with cardboard for curtains. One man chewed on a sandwich, his arms resting on a low, beat-up wall covered with drying jeans. On a lower roof below the dorm rooms, an empty case of Tecate sat atop an empty bag of feed, and on the stairs to ground level, a shirtless man spoke to two women standing below him.

In the stables underneath the rooms, animals stomped, snorted, or slept. Yes, soon the monkey suits would be gone, the photographers and cameramen on to the next gig. Left behind? Same as always: Some horses and humans, making their way through this tiny little corner of the world.