I used to think Ascot was the most beautiful racecourse in the world. Then I saw Longchamp. But now I’ve seen Santa Anita.
The home of this year’s Breeders’ Cup nestles at the foot of the San Gabriel mountains, a few miles north east of Los Angeles in California. The track is dominated by the rearing rocks of the mountain range, which stand up starkly just behind the backstretch. There is none of the softness and gentle curves of Cheltenham’s Cleeve Hill; these are like the city of Los Angeles itself, brash and thrusting.
We arrived at the track at 6am to watch Frankie Dettori ride Raven’s Pass, his mount in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the climax of the two-day meeting. For an hour it was pitch black, before the pink sunrise stole over the mountains with Santa Anita’s palm trees silhouetted against the dawn. The chestnut colt, his coat like burnished bronze in the rising sun, floated over the synthetic Pro-Ride surface like a surfer.
At 8am, Aidan O’Brien’s eight-strong string trotted and cantered gently round the oval mile. His Classic runners, Duke Of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator, winners of nine Group Ones between them, look askance at the streams of other horses working on the track at the same time. “Coming through!” shouts a work rider and brushes past. I bet that doesn’t happen at Ballydoyle.
The pick of the eight looks to be Halfway To Heaven, favourite for the Filly & Mare Turf on Friday. She is ridden in her work by O’Brien’s 15-year-old son, Joseph. Not a bad half-term holiday.
The French pair, Freddy Head’s Breeders’ Cup Mile favourite Goldikova and Andre Fabre’s Turf Sprint runner Only Answer, pick their way delicately over the dirt path from the quarantine barn to the track. The dirt round the barns is the only remnant of Santa Anita’s former racing surface — all Californian tracks switched to synthetic this year.
This is the first Breeders’ Cup to be run on a synthetic surface rather than the lightning-fast, unforgiving dirt that all big American races have been run on for a century. It should favour the European horses, trained on similarly cushioned surfaces at home and raced on grass, and the raiders have their best-ever chance of exceeding the three winners they achieved in 1991, 2001 and 2003.
As Frankie Dettori said this morning as he stepped off one of our best chances, Raven’s Pass, “It’s all systems go, lads.”
Stay in touch with all the action from Santa Anita as it happens on Horseandhound.co.uk throughout the meeting