A winner's circle in Beverly Hills

Times Staff Writer

It might have been Santa Anita: race fans on their feet, cheering thoroughbreds as they shattered turf on the way to the finish line. "Go! Go! Go!" the crowd yelled as jockeys Laffit Pincay Jr., Chris McCarron and Eddie Delahoussaye rode their way to the winner's circle.

But this was no track. This was the Grand Ballroom at the Beverly Hilton Hotel. And it was giant twin movie screens flashing scenes from past Breeders' Cup competitions that had guests of hotelier Merv Griffin rising from their dinner tables.

Welcoming horse owners, breeders, jockeys and a smattering of celebs -- Larry King, Burt Bacharach, Norm Crosby, Connie Stevens, Red Buttons and Dick Van Patten -- to the launch party for the 20th anniversary week of the Breeders' Cup, Griffin said he'd spotted a few betting experts in the crowd. "Got any tips?" he deadpanned.

If ever there was a moment to get pointers for the Oct. 25 races at Santa Anita Park, this was it. Not only were Racing Hall of Famers Pincay, McCarron and Delahoussaye on hand to be recognized for their careers, but former Kentucky Gov. Brereton Jones, owner of one of the largest Blue Grass breeding farms, was there. And so were National Thoroughbred Racing Assn. execs such as D.G. Van Clief and Tim Smith, along with the Oak Tree Racing Assn.'s executive vice president, Sherwood Chillingworth. While Jones could write a book on horse racing, don't look for him to be placing bets, he said. When you own "mares and stallions that have progeny running, you don't have to go to the windows, you've already bet."

During the cocktail reception, Pincay, who suffered a broken neck after a spill this year, said he missed the thrill of the track. "I miss the action, the feeling of winning," he said. "But I'll never ride a horse again. I don't want to take a chance."

Capping the Oct. 20 festivities, Smith called for a moment of silence in memory of legendary jockey Willie Shoemaker, who died Oct. 12. "Let's take a moment to remember the best of them all," he said.

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