10/22/2008 11:00PM

An event evolves with the times

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ARCADIA, Calif. - At age 25, the Breeders' Cup unquestionably is bigger this year, but whether it is better will be closely watched, and subsequently analyzed, following the conclusion of the most ambitious, and transitory, Breeders' Cup ever staged.

By dusk Saturday, the second of two days of Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, 14 races will have been run, more than at any Breeders' Cup. Three races were added to this year's event after three were added in 2007. A record $25.5 million in purses will have been paid out. In the midst of a bleak economy, fans who paid face value for seats were hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars in the hole before ever placing a bet.

The Breeders' Cup is making aggressive, wholesale changes, in terms of medication, racing surfaces, and site selection.

In concert with the California Horse Racing Board, this is the first Breeders' Cup at which anabolic steroids are illegal. In addition, all runners were subject to random, out-of-competition testing in the week leading up to the races.

"We have a particularly strong relationship with the CHRB," said Greg Avioli, the president and chief executive officer of the Breeders' Cup. "Under Richard Shapiro's leadership, it has taken a strong stance on illegal medication, and we are in lockstep with that."

This is the first time that the main-track races at the Breeders' Cup are being run on a synthetic surface, and the question of how that affects the results could reverberate until next year. Santa Anita, which is playing host to the Breeders' Cup for the fourth time this year, is also scheduled to host the 2009 event, marking the first time the same track will have the Breeders' Cup in consecutive years.

Breeders' Cup officials are probably hoping that when California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger makes the trophy presentation following the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday, he will speak for all fans by saying, "I'll be back."

The arrival of Curlin at Santa Anita nearly four weeks ago began the countdown for the Breeders' Cup, but interest skyrocketed this week, when all the horses reached the grounds, most notably an outstanding contingent of runners based in Europe.

"I've been to a lot of Breeders' Cups, and I'm feeling a certain sense of excitement that I haven't felt before," said trainer Eoin Harty, who will send out Colonel John in the Classic and favored Well Armed in the $1 million Dirt Mile.

Led by Avioli, the Breeders' Cup aggressively recruited Europeans for this year's event, and they embraced the switch to a synthetic surface and the tougher medication rules.

"It's critically important to keep the Breeders' Cup an international event," Avioli said. "There's no question the synthetic surface has increased the numbers."

A record total of 29 foreign-based horses were entered in the 14 Breeders' Cup races.

There was a large crowd at Santa Anita during training hours Thursday morning as the Breeders' Cup horses, most wearing training towels with their names, made their final preparations. Two horses, however - Indyanne in the Filly and Mare Sprint on Friday, and Elusive Bluff in the Juvenile on Saturday - were scratched from their races. And Mast Track, who has a quarter crack, was questionable to participate in the Dirt Mile.

All was well with Curlin, though. Curlin, the defending champion in the Classic and the 2007 Horse of the Year, visited the starting gate around 7 a.m. There is a chance the Classic - the last of nine Breeders' Cup races to be run on Saturday - could be the final start of his glorious career.

"We're very proud of Curlin to go over there on this stage," said his trainer, Steve Asmussen. "I'm so proud of what Curlin has done for everyone involved, especially Curlin."

If Curlin wins, he will join Tiznow (2000-2001) as the only horse to win the Classic twice.

The Classic is the ninth race on an 11-race card that is scheduled to begin with the inaugural Breeders' Cup Marathon at 10:10 a.m. Pacific time. ABC will televise the first four Breeders' Cup races on Saturday from 10 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., and then ESPN will take over for the final five Breeders' Cup races, from 12:30 p.m. to 4 p.m.

There is trifecta and superfecta betting on all 11 races, a super high five on the Classic, pick fours starting on races 2, 6, and 8, and a pick six that concludes with the Classic.

It has been warm and dry here all week, and that will not change by Saturday, according to Weather.com. After peaking at 96 degrees Thursday, the temperature was forecast to reach a high of 93 on Friday, and 87 Saturday.

- additional reporting by David Grening