Photo: Samantha Bussanich/Eclipse Sportswire
"California, here I come" were the words I was singing (If you dare want to call it that) when I booked my flight at the end of August to attend the Breeders' Cup. It would be just my second venture to the Golden State, but my first visit to the hosting track, Santa Anita. Prior to 2016, there had been eight Breeders' Cup held at the "Great Race Place", as it is nicknamed, but I had never been there.
I had only seen Santa Anita, with the majestic San Gabriel Mountains providing a breathtaking backdrop, in old black and white racing movies made there in the 40's and 50's, from racing telecasts on network television and of course, in many pictures. With the impending lineup of horses competing in this year's edition, if was difficult to contain my excitement and adrenaline that had been on the rise during the two-month waiting period before departing.
On Thursday, the day before the Breeders' Cup began, I was on my way and counting the hours down, The next day, with my colleagues from Horse Racing Nation, I would finally be at Santa Anita. What a lucky guy!
The list of the many great thoroughbreds and riders that entertained the crowds through the years at this historic venue is too extensive to list, but horses such as, Affirmed, Citation, John Henry, Native Dancer, Seabiscuit, Spectacular Bid, Swaps and Zenyatta are all closely associated with Santa Anita. The same connection applies to jockeys, Eddie Arcaro, Johnny Longden, Chris McCarron, Laffit Pincay, Jr., Bill Shoemaker, Gary Stevens and George "The Ice Man" Wolff
Now add in the near year-round perfect weather and top-class racing, and it's straightforward as to why it has earned the moniker given.
I arrived at the track early Friday morning, walking through the stable area. I was in complete awe of everything around me. I had to keep pinching myself to make sure I wasn't dreaming. We made our way to the barn of Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome. Sporting an unbeaten 6-for 6 record this year, Chrome was one of the marquee names of the Championship event. The 2014 Kentucky Derby winner poked his head out and looked at my camera as if to say, "I know you want to take my picture, so go ahead". And I did!
Our leader, HRN Editor, Brian Zipse interviewed Sherman, as the rest of us stood close by, watching and listening intently. You can see the interview here. Of course, after the interview, I asked the trainer if I could have a picture taken with him. He was very accommodating. Picture taken!
The morning was coming to a close and Santa Anita was getting ready for Day 1 of the 9th Breeders' Cup held at the track in the 33-year history of the event, and it was time for us to take our places in press row and fire up our laptops.
Over the next two days, with Championship honors on-the-line, we were going to see who would prove best in their respective divisions. We would watch juvenile colts and fillies, both on turf and dirt, with a glimpse of possible 2017 Kentucky Derby and Oaks candidates over the latter surface. The best of the American turf horses were here, as were the European turf horses, including the Arc de Triomphe winner. Very fast Sprinters, 3-year olds runners, as well established older horses and mares. The ultimate showdown. East versus West. America against the invaders from overseas. Who would win? We were about to find out. The two biggest questions I was asked and overheard throughout the two days were: Will Beholder or Stellar Wind beat Songbird? Will Arrogate defeat Chrome? That's why the races are run, to find out the answer.
After a five-race undercard, it was time for the Breeders' Cup to commence. After Oscar Performance, Tarmakuz and New Money Honey proved best in their races, it was time for the Breeders' Cup Distaff. It was the moment and race the crowd was waiting for, at least on Day One. We all know the result by now. WOW, what a remarkable performance by two champions, Beholder and Songbird. I haven't seen such a dramatic and thrilling stretch run since the 1989 Preakness Stakes between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. I think the margin of victory was about the same as the '16 Distaff.
As soon as the Distaff was over, one knew they had witnessed a most memorable moment in the history of the Breeders' Cup. Day One was in the history books, but upon leaving the racetrack, I strongly sensed that we would see something special on Saturday.
Day Two adventures brought more buzz as the days lineup was ultra star-studded. The day got started with a bomber of a payoff when Champagne Room hit the wire first in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, paying $69. Lanfranco Dettori roused the crowd with his flying dismount in the winner's circle after Queen's Trust nosed out Lady Eli in a stirring stretch run of the Filly & Mare Turf. Next up, my pick for HRN, Drefong, won the Sprint, so I was happy about that. The Turf Sprint provided another exhilarating finish when Obviously held off the late charge of Om. Three BC races, and what a day so far!
The Juvenile is always a race that provides a look at possible Kentucky Derby contenders for the following year, and the top two-finishers, Classic Empire and Not This Time, started the 2017 Derby talk as they were a neck apart at the wire and more than seven lengths clear of the others. Four races in and 3 photo finishes. There would be no photo needed in the Turf, as no one could reel in Highland Reel after he went right to the front and opened a big lead. Flintshire's rally fell short and Arc winner, Found, who won last years BC Turf, finished third. With another European, Ulysses, finishing fourth, I had the 10-cent superfecta quite a few times. Easy as pie. Thank you, Euros.
Next up, was the Filly & Mare Sprint, the race I had the responsibility of covering for HRN. It had its share of excitement as Finest City held strong in the lane to hold off the determined stretch-long bid of Wavell Avenue to win by less than a length. By now, I was working up a fever of emotions as the big race was drawing closer, but there was one more race to go, the Turf Mile. In that affair, as Tepin came a-charging hard, Tourist held gamely to win by a half-length. Another close ending.
In front of a record setting Santa Anita Breeders' Cup crowd, the big moment had now arrived. Time for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Would it be California Chrome or Arrogate? Or, could one of the others shock the racing world on its biggest day, and pull off an monumental upset? The bettors didn't think so, as they made both aforementioned horses the top two betting choices. Chrome was less than even money and the Bob Baffert-trained Arrogate went off at odds of 3-2. The next closest horse was Frosted at 8-1.
The gates opened for the Classic and they were off and running. No need to recap it, we all know how it unfolded. Just like the previous day in the Distaff, two amazing horses giving all they had, only in this race a half-length separated the 3-year old and the 5-year old at the wire. We had experience over youth in the Distaff and the reverse in the Classic. Too bad both races couldn't have ended in dead-heats, because both Songbird and Chrome ran winning races, but lost nothing in defeat.
I was certain we would see something special on Saturday, and Arrogate/California Chrome didn't disappoint me on my confident prediction.
Thirteen Breeders' Cup races and only one, yes, one winning favorite (Obviously). Thrills, excitement, highs, lows, one had an abundance of emotions over Friday and Saturday.
The 2016 Breeders' Cup is now in the rear-view mirror, but having been to 9 previous editions, I can say without reservation that this year's event will go down as my most memorable. And it wasn't just about the races. It was about making my first trip to Santa Anita. Taking plenty of pictures to capture my visit. Seeing California Chrome up close, meeting his trainer, Art Sherman. Saying hello to old friends, making new friends. Being in Southern California allowed me meet up with my Facebook friends from the area. But the topper, or the icing on the cake if you will for me was, enjoying two-days of handicapping and watching the 33rd Breeders' Cup with my HRN colleagues. Did I mention how lucky I am?