Five championship races are staged Friday at Santa Anita, nestled in the foothills north of Los Angeles. Another nine go on Saturday, culminating in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Saturday's showdown in the $2 million Distaff pits older mares against some stellar 3-year-olds and, to a lesser extent, the East against the West.
The morning-line favorite is two-time defending champion Royal Delta, a 5-year-old Empire Maker mare based at Belmont Park in New York. Although she won this race with authority each of the past two years, there are some questions. Since a disappointing trip to the Dubai World Cup in March, Royal Delta has been defeated twice in four starts, most recently by Princess of Sylmar, who blew by the champ with ease in the stretch run of the Grade I Beldame in New York, winning by 2 lengths.
Trainer Bill Mott said this week he has been working Royal Delta faster for the Breeders' Cup than he did before the Beldame.
"Before the Beldame, we slowed her down and I thought I would have enough in her to get the job done anyway and it wasn't," he said. "It seems like when she works a little faster and you let her train a little bit, she runs pretty well. I'm hoping that's what the result is this go-round."
Mott also has Close Hatches in the Distaff. She has won five of seven starts and beat Princess of Sylmar in the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct in early April.
Princess of Sylmar heads the 3-year-old filly division, having gone undefeated since she won the Kentucky Oaks. Despite having beaten the champ last time around, trainer Todd Pletcher isn't ready to claim supremacy.
"No. Because we haven't beat her in the Distaff yet," Pletcher said after Princess of Sylmar's first jog around Santa Anita. "(Royal Delta) is a very, very good mare and I'm sure she'll run her 'A' race on Friday."
The West Coast contingent consists solely of Beholder, another 3-year-old. She has won seven of her 10 starts, including four of her last five. Like Princess of Sylmar, she defeated older rivals in her last race -- the Grade I Zenyatta, which was run over the same Santa Anita track she will test on Friday. Beholder was second in the Kentucky Oaks.
Six are entered for the Distaff and all but one are graded stakes winners.
Also on the Friday card:
The championship races commence with a puzzle in the $500,000, Grade II Marathon -- the only Breeders' Cup race that is not a Grade I. Ten are set to go and the lukewarm morning-line favorite is Ever Rider, a gray 5-year-old making his first start outside his native Argentina. That's not a barrier to victory. Calidoscopio won this race last year fresh up from Argentina -- at odds of 17-1. The competition is a bit shaky, with only two of the starters previously having been asked to go the 1 3/4 miles of the Marathon. One is Commander, who finished ninth in last year's running. The other is Pool Play, who won the 1 3/4-miles Valedictory over the Woodbine all-weather course in 2010.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
The youngsters are seldom easy to figure out and this bunch of 14 is further scrambled by the presence of four Europeans -- three of them group stakes winners. Al Thakhira is undefeated in two starts in England. Chriselliam won the Group 1 Shadwell Fillies Mile at Newmarket in her last start. Vorda won the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes, also at Newmarket, but stretches out beyond 6 furlongs for the first time. Testa Rossi won three straight races in France, then came from last to win the Group 1 Miss Grillo at Belmont Park in her first U.S. start. The locals are headed by the top three finishers from the Surfer Girl Stakes, run at 1 mile over the Santa Anita turf Oct. 6 -- Clenor, Nesso and Colonel Joan. Among the others, My Conquestadory was dominant in winning both her previous starts, at Woodbine and at Keeneland. Ready to Act was ready to win her second race without a loss when she tossed her rider in the stretch run of her last start. Sky Painter finished second, a nose behind Testa Rossi, in the Miss Grillo. Sorting this out should produce a tidy reward.
Twelve are entered in this event, with one "also eligible," but the key to the race appears to be whether Verrazano runs to his potential or throws in another clunker. The 3-year-old More Than Ready colt won his first four races, and then struggled home 14th in the Kentucky Derby. He went on to win the Grade III Pegasus and the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park but faded badly in the Grade I Travers at Saratoga, finishing seventh while trying 1 1/4 miles. He has not raced since. Verrazano appears to run best when on or near the lead, and drew gate No. 10 so jockey John Velazquez will have his work cut out for him aboard the 3-1 morning-line favorite, who is making his last start before standing at Ashford Stud.
Asked why the Verrazano was cut back to 1 mile after contesting longer traces, trainer Todd Pletcher said Wednesday, "We just felt like he's always had that brilliance about him. Had he won the Travers, we would have looked at it a little differently. But after the Travers, we decided the Mile would be the right spot for him."
The rest of the cast is a mixed bag with all having shown ability but not consistency. Pants On Fire, Goldencents, Fed Biz and Alpha are among the oddsmakers' early choices.
Three from overseas are included in this field of 13 and they represent the competing superpowers of international racing. Always dangerous Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien will saddle two for the Coolmore conglomerate -- Giovanni Boldini, an American-bred son of War Front, who won two of his three starts in the Emerald Isle and Wilshire Boulevard, a Holy Roman Emperor colt whose accomplishments are more modest. Sheik Mohammed's Godolphin juggernaut is represented by Outstrip, trained by Charlie Appleby and winner of two of his four starts in England. Outstrip was on the Santa Anita turf Wednesday morning and Appleby said he is "really pleased with him ... . All we need now is a prevailing wind and a bit of luck." The morning-line favorite, however, is Bobby's Kitten, representing this year's dominant American owners, Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Bobby's Kitten, by the Ramseys' star stallion, Kitten's Joy, finished third in his career debut and then won his next two starts with authority, including a 6 1/4-lengths romp in the Grade III Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland, a race that taken off the turf and run on the all-weather course.