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THE BREEDERS' CUP

World-Class Day at the Races

What happens today in the 20th edition of the Breeders' Cup figures to heavily influence end-of-the-year honors for horses, trainers and jockeys.

October 25, 2003|Bill Christine | Times Staff Writer

Hardly anybody but NBC pays attention to the "World Thoroughbred Championships" label that the Breeders' Cup added to its branding a few years ago, but it is a semi-truth: Many championships -- horse of the year, divisional titles and owner, trainer and jockey awards -- will be heavily influenced by what happens in a little over four hours at Santa Anita today.

These are really not "world" championships, any more than baseball's World Series is truly the "World" Series, but that's a debate for another day. What counts at Santa Anita, as the Breeders' Cup comes to Southern California for the sixth time in its 20 years, is that racing gets a much-needed rush -- eight races worth about $14 million, wall-to-wall TV exposure, full fields that ensure attractive payoffs and a representative turnout of European horses.

"We think all the planets are in the proper alignment," said D.G. Van Clief, president of the Breeders' Cup. "This is our 20th year, it's been 10 years since we've been at Santa Anita, and the city of Arcadia is observing its 100th year. So numerically, we've got everything on our side."

Although the races are being run at the venerable track in Arcadia, the host is the non-profit Oak Tree Racing Assn., which leases Santa Anita for its annual fall season.

"It's hard to believe that we're really going to do this," said Sherwood Chillingworth, executive president of Oak Tree. "We were supposed to host this in two other years [since 1993], but we broke through the gates [didn't get the Breeders' Cup] both times."

A remodeling program by Santa Anita, Oak Tree's landlord, caused the Breeders' Cup to bypass the track twice in recent years.

Ninety horses are scheduled to run, which ties for the lowest total since the Breeders' Cup expanded from seven to eight races in 1999. Major horses such as Mineshaft, Empire Maker and Azeri are on the sidelines through injury or retirement. Azeri, a Breeders' Cup winner last year, is the defending horse of the year, and Mineshaft, depending on what happens today, is favored to be voted the national title for 2003.

Chillingworth projects a crowd of 55,000, despite temperatures in the 90s and growing wildfires in the area. Residue of ash fell Friday at the track, where veterinarians said that they don't expect the fire-related conditions to bother the horses.

"The fires are about 60 miles away," Chillingworth said. "I think we'll be all right. As for the heat, we've got a super early start, and that should help. Much of the racing will be completed before the thermometer hits its highest. The last time we had this, we set a betting record. I think we'll break another record this time."

Gates open at 7:30 a.m. There are four races on the card besides the Breeders' Cup stakes. The first race is at 9:40 a.m., the first Breeders' Cup race at 10:20 a.m., with the early start intended to accommodate TV schedules and off-track betting in the Eastern time zone. Post time for the Classic, at $4 million the richest race in the United States, is 2:35 p.m.

Van Clief does not think the Breeders' Cup will shun Southern California in the future because of the small turnout of horses this year. Next year's races are scheduled to be held in Texas for the first time, at Lone Star Park near Dallas. Belmont Park in New York and Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., are likely to be the hosts in 2005 and 2006.

"New Jersey [the Meadowlands] and Del Mar are interested in the years beyond that," Van Clief said. "We'll give them every consideration. Despite the defections this time -- which I view as a unique thing -- I still think we have enough equine stars to put on a good show."

Several horses, including Perfect Drift, Funny Cide and Medaglia d'Oro, could unseat Mineshaft by winning the Classic. Interestingly, Volponi, who won the Classic last year at Arlington Park, and Funny Cide, the popular New York-bred gelding who won the first two legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and Preakness -- in May, are lightly regarded by oddsmakers. Funny Cide, who was debilitated by the heat when he was beaten at Monmouth Park in New Jersey in early August, hasn't run since then and is winless since the Preakness. Volponi, a 43-1 shot at Arlington, has had only a string of runner-up finishes since then.

Sometimes, the participants have to step back from the glitter of the event to concentrate on their tasks. Such is the case this year with Scott Lake, who has had only one previous Breeders' Cup starter and has a good chance to win today's Sprint with Shake You Down, a 5-year-old gelding who cost only $65,000 when he claimed him out of a race in New York in March. Lake is well-known for scattering his horses around many of the tracks on the East Coast.

"If somebody had told me five years ago that I'd be running horses in races like these, I would have laughed at them," Lake said. "This makes up for the 130,000 miles I drive every year to be with my horses."

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