Get ready for lots of twists and turns during the 31-day Oak Tree meeting that begins today at Santa Anita.
Among the intriguing story lines:
* The two-day $25.5-million Breeders’ Cup arrives Nov. 6-7 without an appearance from the 3-year-old filly sensation Rachel Alexandra, whose owner wants nothing to do with synthetic track surfaces. That leaves it up to an expected strong European contingent to try repeat their success from last year on the same track.
* Unbeaten Zenyatta would like to end her racing career with a perfect record. The 5-year-old mare has won all 12 of her races and is scheduled to run in the Oct. 10 Lady’s Secret Stakes at 1 1/16 miles in a final Breeders’ Cup tune-up.
* Get out the cameras because on the same day Zenyatta runs, Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird will race in the Goodwood Stakes at 1 1/8 miles. That means three Grade I stakes on Oct. 10, including the Yellow Ribbon Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 1/4 miles on the turf.
* And Saturday is the California Cup, with $1 million in purse money offered during a 10-race card restricted to horses bred in California, and that means someone related to the prolific sire Unusual Heat probably will win a race or two.
* Sunday could produce the next Kentucky Derby hopeful, with 2-year-olds taking center stage in the Norfolk Stakes and 2-year-old fillies running in the Oak Leaf Stakes.
* Over the next six weeks, fingers will be crossed as the Arcadia track’s Pro-Ride synthetic surface is tested, with concerns about changing weather conditions leaving lots of uncertainty as the anti-synthetic crowd waits for the opportunity to jump on the slightest misstep.
* Next month, a leading bidder could emerge to purchase Santa Anita, whose owner, Magna Entertainment Corp., is in bankruptcy proceedings. Of course, if no one can line up the necessary credit to pull off the deal, Magna might end up keeping the track.
* Finally, there figures to be strong competition in the jockey race. Joel Rosario has won the last two riding titles at Hollywood Park and Del Mar, but a healthy Rafael Bejarano is back, and don’t think Garrett Gomez, Joe Talamo and Tyler Baze won’t be heard from.
If things ever get boring, there’s always a revitalized trainer Bob Baffert to offer entertainment. He has the 3-year-old sprinter Zensational primed to race in the Breeders’ Cup, plus the 2-year-old colt Lookin At Lucky making progress as a potential Kentucky Derby contender.
Also, Santa Anita will continue to offer free grandstand admission on Fridays except for Breeders’ Cup weekend, with $1 hot dogs, $1 soft drinks and $1 beer.
The first day of racing todayfeatures the Grade III $100,000 Morvich Handicap at 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course. Desert Code, the defending Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint champion, will face a strong challenge from the freaky fast 5-year-old gelding California Flag, who won last year’s Morvich at odds of 22-1.
Desert Code hasn’t raced in 5 1/2 months, but he relishes the Santa Anita hillside course, having won five times in eight starts. “He’s a downhill specialist,” trainer David Hofmans said.
California Flag won his only start of 2009 in August, taking the Green Flash Handicap at Del Mar. He set a track record last year in winning the Morvich.
“I think he’s better than last year,” trainer Brian Koriner said.