The 40th Oak Tree horse race meeting at Santa Anita begins today, but it will not be business as usual.
This is projected to be 26 days of new things, new people and new ideas. Plus another new track surface.
The goal is to whet the appetite of race fans with a menu of appetizers, leading to the main course, the Oct. 24-25 Breeders’ Cup.
That, of course, is horse racing’s richest day. It is the Kentucky Derby with a fatter wallet, a two-day boxing card with all main events. The feature of features is the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday, Oct. 25. And even that, as big as it has been in the past, has a chance to be one of the biggest ever if a few things fall into place.
Opening day is more than just a nibble on a stick. The $100,000 Morvich Handicap, a Grade III stakes race down the hill on the turf at 6 1/2 furlongs, for 3-year-olds and up, is one of a series of “Win and You’re In” races that brings automatic entry into a Breeders’ Cup event.
Horses to watch in that one include trainer John Sadler’s Get Funky, who has won seven times in 16 starts and taken home purses worth $604,757, and another seven-time winner, Rebellion, who has been in the money 14 of his 18 starts, is trained by H. Graham Motion and is ridden by one of the hottest jockeys in the country, Rafael Bejarano. Rebellion has won $533,367, mostly on synthetic tracks. The bulk of Get Funky’s winnings have been on turf.
Santa Anita’s synthetic track is about two weeks old. Last winter’s disaster with the first synthetic go-around has been filed away for memory, and about all that remains are much of the materials, fully filtered and remixed.
The goal of officials, after the marquee winter meeting at Santa Anita was hit with heavy rain, poor drainage and postponements that led to a public relations meltdown, had been to dig down about six inches to where the asphalt base was and redo everything from there and above. When they got to the base, they found even more drainage problems than they expected, and enough cracking and further damage to the base to necessitate a reconstruction of the base and the surface.
The project was expected to cost about $2.5 million, but that was before the problems with the base were discovered. No final figure on cost has been released. With the Breeders’ Cup here this year, as well as next, Santa Anita officials had little choice but to make sure their facility was equal to their extensive plans for this meeting.
After today’s Morvich, Oak Tree will shift its focus to what could conceivably be a day in racing only a notch below Triple Crown days and the Breeders’ Cup.
That will be Saturday’s unprecedented six Grade I races, called Breeders’ Cup Challenge Day. Five of them will give the winner direct entry to the Breeders’ Cup. The total purses for those races will be $1.9 million. The most previous Grade I races for one track on one day is five.
Saturday’s races are the $500,000 Goodwood Stakes, the $400,000 Yellow Ribbon stakes, and four races at $250,000 each -- the 40th Oak Leaf, the Ancient Title, the Lady’s Secret and the Clement Hirsch. All but the Clement Hirsch qualify the winners directly into the Breeders’ Cup starting gate.
While Oak Tree officials are doling out money for all that, they will also have an eye on Belmont Park in New York, where last year’s horse of the year, Curlin, will be running in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. A victory, or even a good showing there, increases the odds Curlin will make another trip to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which he won last year. That would give Santa Anita its dream matchup, with Curlin and Big Brown, this year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, already committed to the Classic.
After Saturday’s Grade I pot of gold, Oak Tree will offer the $250,000 Grade I Norfolk Stakes and the $200,000 Grade II Oak Tree Mile on Sunday.
Because of the Breeders’ Cup, the traditional Cal Cup will move up to Oct. 5.
And two weeks later, on Oct. 18, the Living Legends race will take place. In it, all riding Cal-bred fillies, will be jockeys Angel Cordero, Sandy Hawley, Pat Day, Chris McCarron, Jerry Bailey, Jacinto Vasquez, Julie Krone and Gary Stevens.
All are retired, in the Hall of Fame, and collectively responsible for more than 49,000 race victories and $1.5 billion in purses.
There have been jockey legends races before, but not like this one, where the public can bet, the result will be official, and the winning jockey’s record book will be reopened and one more victory added.
Also on hand that day, but not riding, will be jockey legends Laffit Pincay Jr., Eddie Delahoussaye and Jorge Velasquez. Add their total purses to the group and you top the $2-billion mark.
Then, the next weekend, Oak Tree at Santa Anita will play host to the Breeders’ Cup.