Oct. 28 (UPI) -- The Breeders' Cup World Championships return to Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday with an international cast chasing $30 million in purses and breeders' awards on both turf and dirt.
As it has since its inception in 1984 at long-gone Hollywood Park, the event will produce champions in many of racing's divisions. And this year's races have particular importance in the battle for Horse of the Year honors with no clear favorite for that distinction.
The races also are run this year against the backdrop of a spate of horse fatalities at Santa Anita. A 2-year-old filly was euthanized after being injured during a race Sunday -- the 36th fatality at the track since last Dec. 30.
Despite the rash of deaths, the sport's leading trainers continue to express confidence in the racing surfaces and Santa Anita's efforts to improve safety. The Breeders' Cup Board unanimously rejected suggestions the site be moved and, ultimately, no logical runner has stayed away from the event because of safety concerns.
"We've changed some things here for the better, said trainer Bob Baffert, who has excellent chances in at least four of the races. "The surface, they're working on that. It was a wake-up moment for racing. The trainers, everyone involved, we're being more conscientious than ever before. I don't have any issues at all."
Normally, the biggest race of the program is the final one, the $6 million Longines Breeders' Cup Classic at 1 1/4 miles. This year, that race lacks some of the star power of recent years but compensates with a very competitive field.
Wily trainer Bill Mott sends 5-year-old mare Elate against males including one of trainer Bob Baffert's favorites, McKinzie. Code of Honor, placed second in the Kentucky Derby and winner of the Grade I Travers at Saratoga, could make a Horse of the Year case with a win -- and certainly would be the 3-year-old champ.
Others with credentials include Japanese-bred Yoshida, Preakness winner War of Will, Pennsylvania Derby winner Math Wizard and recent local Grade I winners Mongolian Groom and Higher Power.
McKinzie was installed as the 3-1 favorite on the morning line after drawing gate No. 8 in an 11-horse field and Baffert said he was satisfied with that. "At the end of the day, the cream rises to the top. That's what the Breeders' Cup is all about," Baffert said.
Elate drew the No. 6 position as she tries to become just the second female winner of the Classic since Zenyatta 10 years ago. Mott said, "It's hard to be comparable to Zenyatta."
The $2 million Longines Distaff has Midnight Bisou, with a seven-race win streak on the line; Grade II Zenyatta Stakes winner Paradise Woods; Grade I Clement Hirsch winner Ollie's Candy; Grade I Spinster winner Blue Prize and, representing the 3-year-olds, Grade I Alabama winner Dunbar Road. Others have a chance, depending on running styles, in one of the deepest fields of the weekend.
The $2 million Sprint and $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint are among the few races that did not draw capacity fields. Neither, however, lacks the logical candidates and year-end honors are on the line in both. The Sprint features the first- and second-place finishers from the Grade I Dubai Golden Shaheen in March at Meydan.
Four grass races on the Saturday card culminate in the $4 million Longines Turf where the late defection of last year's runner-up, Ireland-based Magical, leaves Chad Brown trainee Bricks and Mortar, as the 9-5 morning-line favorite.
Bricks and Mortar is undefeated in five U.S. starts this year, four of them Grade I affairs. Magical was withdrawn Monday morning, said trainer Aidan O'Brien, after spiking a fever. She is to be bred to No Nay Never next springtime.
Magical's absence leaves overseas visitors Old Persian from the Godolphin global juggernaut, Fleeting and Just Wonderful from the O'Brien yard, Richard Hannon trainee Billesdon Brook and John Gosden's Fanny Logan might keep Sistercharlie honest.
And then there's Vasilika, a $40,000 claim in February 2018 who has gone on to win 12 races since then, most of them graded stakes, and is 11-for-12 on the Santa Anita turf. She will be trained by Dan Ward as her suspended owner-trainer Jerry Hollendorfer divested himself of his interest to get her into the field.
The $2 million TVG Mile on the grass is as tough a puzzle as handicappers face during the weekend. O'Brien's Circus Maximus, a 3-year-old Galileo colt, has been a bear at the distance after coming up short in the 1 1/2-miles Investec Derby in June and might get the edge. True Valour could be a late threat among the locals after winning the Grade II City of Hope Mile over the course. Tough race.
The $2 million Maker's Mark Filly & Mare Turf is replete with the usual European talent but any of them will be hard-pressed to deal with Sistercharlie. The 5-year-old mare, trained by Chad Brown and herself bred in Ireland, has won six straight races, all Grade I's.
The $1 million Turf Sprint has Belvoir Bay and Stormy Liberal, the second- and third-place finishers from the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night in Dubai. They finished behind only Blue Point, arguably the best grass sprinter in the world before his mid-year retirement. O'Brien brings So Perfect and Fairyland from his Ballydoyle yard in Ireland.
Attracting lots of interest is the normally secondary $1 million Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile, where Omaha Beach, once the favorite for this year's Kentucky Derby, could emerge as a Horse of the Year contender with a victory if he can conquer a tough international field including Blue Chipper, the first-ever South Korean starter in the Breeders' Cup; UK-based Ambassadorial, who finished third in the Korea Cup in Seoul two starts back; Coal Front, winner of the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night in Duabi; and a U.S. runner Baffert raved on recently, Improbable.
The $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile, with colts from Ireland and Japan challenging the locals, tops "Future Stars Friday," five races for 2-year-olds on both dirt and grass. Eight Rings, trained by Bob Baffert, and Dennis' Moment, handled by Dale Romans, both look like unusually talented runners and potential Kentucky Derby contenders.
In a fascinating conversation with Romans, recorded by ace reporter Jennie Rees, Baffert said, "I think these are two superstars in the making, just raw talent. I just hope turning for home that they're right there." That prompted Romans to add, "And may the best horse win. And hopefully we're having this same discussion Belmont Stakes week ...."
The $2 million Juvenile Fillies has several likely candidates but Baffert's filly Bast, probably will be the favorite after winning two Grade I races on the local circuit. And the three grass races for 2-year-olds drew some of the most talented European runners along with promising youngsters from all over North America.