The Breeders’ Cup comes to Santa Anita this week without a superstar like Zenyatta, and it’s also missing the injured Triple Crown race winners from this year, I’ll Have Another and Union Rags.
So why watch?
“Because the best horses in the world are running over a two-day period and because there’ll be some good racin’,” said veteran trainer Tom Proctor, who nears his 5,000th start by sending 9-2 shot Marketing Mix, with jockey Garrett Gomez, to the $2-million Filly and Mare Turf on Friday.
The lack of star power hits in the sixth year since the Breeders’ Cup converted what was an eight-race, one-day event to a two-day festival that now stands at 15 races, including the Marathon and five juvenile races.
So, instead of a competition crammed with talent, there’s dilution now, as owners and trainers can select the most specialized race to increase their odds of winning a purse that ranges from $500,000 to $5 million.
“The Juvenile Sprint, for instance, is a very weak field,” said Jay Privman of the Daily Racing Form. “Nobody would miss that race if it wasn’t run. With 15 races, it can be harder for people to focus on the core of what makes this special. There’s too much background noise.”
Proctor wishes Breeders’ Cup purses would be distributed differently, by investing not in extra races like this weekend’s, but in special Breeders’ Cup features at tracks throughout the nation like Portland Meadows in Oregon and Aqueduct in New York.
Nevertheless, Privman, Proctor and others religiously close to the sport are enthused about the richness of talent that will play out at the base of the San Gabriel mountains Friday and Saturday.
Trainer Bob Baffert’s Game On Dude is favored in the Classic, as jockey Rafael Bejarano has replaced last year’s runner-up rider, Chantal Sutherland, in pursuit of the Eclipse Award for horse of the year.
Even without Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner I’ll Have Another and Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags, along with two-time Triple Crown runner-up Bodemeister, Game On Dude has work to do.
The Classic features Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron The Greek, two-time Jockey Gold Cup winner Flat Out, Woodward Stakes winner To Honor And Serve and Baffert’s former Richard’s Kid, now trained by I’ll Have Another handler Doug O’Neill.
One of the numerous horses afforded options in the multi-race card was third-place Kentucky Derby finisher Dullahan, whose trainer, Dale Romans, rejected the Classic in favor of the $3-million Turf on Saturday.
Romans also placed 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford in the $1-million Dirt Mile as a 2-1 favorite instead of the Classic. “To keep him a little shorter and if he wins, he can be the [Eclipse Award] sprint champion. That played into it,” Romans said.
“I had a tough decision -- which one fit us best,” Romans said. “That’s the decision a lot of us have to make. It’s most important to make sure we’re competing in the best category, and I believe that jockeying and strategizing is fun for the true race fan.”
Breeders’ Cup Chief Executive Craig Fravel said his organization annually reviews its lineup of races.
The thought now is that in addition to giving more incentive to European horses to enter, Fravel said, “The Breeders’ Cup has always been about making the business better. I guarantee you there won’t be a bad race.”
There are eight former Breeders’ Cup winners in the weekend field, including defending Sprint champion Amazombie, trained by veteran Southern California horseman Bill Spawr, and defending Ladies’ Classic champion Royal Delta.
After winning last year’s race, Royal Delta was expected to be retired with a sale pending.
Now, Royal Delta is back with trainer Bill Mott, competing in “as good a race as you could ever want,” Privman said. Royal Delta will go against last year’s Juvenile Fillies winner My Miss Aurelia (unbeaten in six starts) and 2010 Juvenile Fillies winner Awesome Feather (unbeaten in 10 starts).
The $2-million Mile Turf is also gripping, led by perhaps America’s greatest horse, Wise Dan, a 9-5 favorite, against 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Ireland’s Excelebration, trained by the distinguished Aidan O’Brien.
Animal Kingdom has used only workouts to prep for the race after an injury in February.
Four of Excelebration’s five losses were to the great European horse Frankel, who retired at 14-0 this month after his connections chose to close the 4-year-old’s career overseas rather than at Santa Anita.
O’Brien will also send St Nicholas Abbey to defend his Turf title.
Point Of Entry, the Turf favorite who has won five consecutive Grade I races, is considered by some to be America’s finest turf horse.
“You can’t judge an event like this on an individual horse,” Fravel said. “When you see that it’s possible the world rankings will come out one, two, three with horses that will race here ... we have nothing to worry about.”