Santa Anita was, well…Santa Anita.
Beautiful mountains, beautiful foliage, beautiful architecture, and, of course, beautiful horses. There were quite a few beautiful people, too.
The facility has many nooks and crannies able to handle a Breeders’ Cup-size crowd. Betting lines were short, for the most part, though food shortages became a problem at several eating outlets.
The litter of losing tickets is a pest tracks will likely never be rid of, but extra employees were on hand to pick them up during the races.
On Friday and especially Saturday, the paddock was a colorful mass of unmoving human bodies with the occasional horse head or two poking up into the camera’s field of vision. The crowded conditions were not aided by the Breeders’ Cup blockade on the top steps of the saddling barn.
As horses returned after each Breeders’ Cup race, a solid wall of photographers would fan out perpendicular to the rail to get shots of the winners and losers as they galloped and trotted back to be unsaddled.
For many fans, the highlight of both days was Zenyatta’s win in Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic (formerly known as the Distaff). She remained undefeated in nine career starts, seven in 2008.
On Saturday, 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin was cheered throughout his time in front of the public. Fans claimed their spots in the paddock and garden areas to catch a glimpse of him, before the Breeders’ Cup Turf was even run. Turf winner Conduit was forced to step off the path back to the receiving barn and circle in a small grassy area as fans lined the path the Classic contenders took to the walking ring. It seemed that race was forgotten as soon as it was “Curlin time.”
Approaching the Classic, very few spots remained on the entire outside track rail, from the tip of the Clubhouse to the top of the stretch entering the stable area.
As Curlin jogged in the post parade with his faithful pony friend Pancho, the crowd let out a roar, section by section. As he made his move for the lead in the final turn of the race, adrenaline levels spiked.
Unfortunately, Curlin was not able to sustain his rally, with European turf milers Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator, and locally-based Tiago passing him before the end.
In the post-race trophy presentations, the area surrounding the winners’ circle was full with fans and paparazzi hoping to get a view of California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, actor Kurt Russell, and the effervescent Italian jockey Frankie Dettori. Likely the most well-known jockey in the world, Dettori always puts on a show with his famous flying dismounts and general enthusiasm. A group of English fans happily sang his theme song.
As expected, traffic was slow exiting the track. It is unavoidable with such a large mass of people in an already crowded area.
There was much to reminisce on while sitting bumper-to-bumper. The overall event went well, with memorable performances and few problems. There were likely many people who instantly blamed the synthetic Pro-Ride surface for Curlin’s loss and some of the Europeans’ victories. Many of those same people probably had their mind set before the races were even run.
The biggest boast, though, is that no horses were injured. The Pro-Ride and turf tracks played fast, and SAFE. The headlines in the news the next days were not accompanied by a gruesome photo and indictment of the sport, but a celebration of horse racing at its best.
It was a great championship weekend at “The Great Race Place,” and it’s all coming back next year.