The reigning king and queen of horse racing, California Chrome and Songbird, received post-position assignments Monday as anticipation began to grow for this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Santa Anita.
There will be 13 races and $28 million worth of purses, but the main focus is centered on the $2-million Distaff on Friday and the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday. It’s the ninth time Santa Anita has hosted horse racing’s world championships.
California Chrome, a 5-year-old California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit with a North American-record $13,432,650 in career earnings, has won all six of his races in 2016. He drew No. 4 in a field of 10 for the 1 1/4-mile Classic and will be ridden by Victor Espinoza. He has been installed as the even-money morning-line favorite.
Songbird, a 3-year-old filly who’s won 11 of 11 races in her career, will be facing older fillies and mares for the first time in the 1 1/8-mile Distaff and is the 6-5 favorite. She will break from the No. 1 position and the competition will be strong in the eight-horse field. Songbird and jockey Mike Smith will have to defeat Eclipse Award winners Beholder and Stellar Wind.
Reporters have started asking Smith whether Songbird is better than Zenyatta, the 2010 horse of the year who won 19 of 20 races under Smith’s guidance.
“There’s no answer,” he said. “It’s like saying who’s a better quarterback, Joe Montana or Tom Brady? It’s about whether you want to get dirty. Zenyatta came from last and the other filly goes to the front.”
“I wouldn’t trade places with anybody, but it is a difficult race,” said Beholder’s Hall of Fame trainer, Richard Mandella. “We have two very difficult fillies to run against.”
“She looks great, she’s into her routine and we’re excited,” said Stellar Wind’s trainer, John Sadler, who’s 0 for 37 in Breeders’ Cup races.
California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby winner, has become a fan favorite. Buttons, hats and signs always are present when he makes an appearance. Espinoza has been making the right calls strategically this year on whether to send California Chrome to the lead, and this race figures to put him on the spot again.
“All I can do is have confidence and trust my decisions,” Espinoza said. “Chromes, they love him as much as I do. It makes my job tougher because I don’t want to disappoint them.”
Arrogate, the rising 3-year-old colt who has been called a “freak” after his 13 1/2-length victory on Aug. 27 in the Travers Stakes, possesses the kind of speed to challenge California Chrome from the start. There’s also Melatonin, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap and Hollywood Gold Cup who’s four for four racing at Santa Anita.
One of Europe’s top horses, Found, winner of the Prix de I’Arc de Triomphe, will pass up the Classic to run in the $4-million Turf for trainer Aidan O’Brien. The 4-year-old daughter of Galileo won last year’s Turf.
Many of the world’s top jockeys will be represented this weekend, including Europe-based Ryan Moore and Frankie Dettori, East Coast-based John Velazquez, Javier Castellano and Julien Leparoux, and West Coast stars Rafael Bejarano and Flavien Prat.
With the temperature projected to be in the low 80s and “Chrome for President” buttons expected to be plentiful, the signs look promising for a memorable two days of racing this weekend.
“I think it’s very exciting,” Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale said Monday morning. “I think anybody who has an interest at all with racing can’t help but be passionate about the Breeders’ Cup, especially this year.”