The weather was beautiful. The San Gabriel mountains were a majestic backdrop. An enthusiastic crowd of nearly 70,000 came to the races and bet more money than ever had been bet in a single day at a U.S. track. Just about everything was perfect for the third Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park.
Except for the races themselves.
Horses who were supposed to be champions didn't deliver championship performances. Only two of the winners, the 2-year-old filly Brave Raj and the turf horse Manila, were especially impressive.
Of course, good horses don't always perform on cue -- especially when, in the case of the European star Dancing Brave, they have to travel 6,000 miles and adapt to a new style of racing. But what most affected and blemished the Breeders' Cup was the Santa Anita racing strip.
Easterners always have pictured the racing here as a weird aberration, a place where horses with early speed win everything and stretch-runners have little chance.
Santa Anita officials were so sensitive to this justified criticism that they changed the composition of their racing surface. A few days before the Breeders' Cup, I wrote that the track was now uniform and fair. Horseplayers who read this and then watched the Breeders' Cup on television might have thought I was nuts, but the track had indeed been fair throughout this fall meeting -- until Saturday.
On the most important day of the racing year, the Santa Anita strip became a California superhighway again. For a fair test of horses' ability, the Breeders' Cup might as well have been run at Charles Town.
All five races on the dirt were won by the horse who was leading into the stretch. No matter how fast the early pace was, front-runners didn't get tired.
The fractions of the Juvenile Fillies event were a breathtaking 22 15 seconds and :45 35, yet no stretch-runner was able to make an impact on the race. In the Sprint, Smile and Pine Tree Lane went head and head through a half mile in an insane :43 35, but they were still one-two at the finish. Pine Tree Lane never had shown such ability on an eastern track.
As a result, few of the Breeders' Cup races yielded what could be called definitive results. Few rational handicappers would bet that Skywalker, the winner of the $3 million Classic, could beat Precisionist and Turkoman in a rematch. I would bet that Capote, the front-running winner of the Juvenile, will prove to be no champion next season.
The outcome of the Breeders' Cup races will have a couple of particularly regrettable results. Even though Manila was a worthy winner of the Turf, the loss of Dancing Brave will surely deter the owners of future European superstars from taking the risk of coming here.
"There's no question that his loss has set back the Breeders' Cup and international racing," said John McCririck, a British turf writer.
The loss of Turkoman and Precisionist in the Classic also killed their chances to be horse of the year. This was especially unfair to Turkoman, who was the only stretch-runner who managed to get into contention all day.
Lady's Secret will therefore be the horse of the year, rewarded for ducking the males in the Classic and running against a weak group of fillies and mares.