“What odds would I get for a Breeders’ Cup-Grand National double?” asked British jumps handicapper Phil Smith as we watched Cloudy’s Knight breeze past. A rangy chestnut nine-year-old who’s the spit of a three-mile chaser, Cloudy’s Knight runs in the first race of the Breeders’ Cup meeting here at Santa Anita in California, Friday’s Marathon. Phil thinks he’s a good thing for the $500,000 race — the poorest purse of the meeting — but looking like a candidate for the National Hunt Chase at Cheltenham doesn’t really translate to these so-called thoroughbred world championships.
All the big horses are out working on the track this morning as a chilly mist hangs over the San Gabriel mountains, which leap up behind the Los Angeles course. Mine That Bird, the Kentucky Derby winner, scratches along. He’s nothing to look at, and his cowboy-hatted, moustachioed trainer Chip Woolley’s going to have to perform a miracle to get him to beat the rest of the satin-coated Classic field on Saturday.
The other “Bird”, Belmont winner Summer Bird, looks much more impressive. His two other Grade One wins since — the Travers Stakes and the Jockey Club Gold Cup — show how much of an upward curve he’s on, but all three were on dirt, not the Pro-Ride synthetic surface here that we Europeans love and the Americans (at least those from the East Coast) loathe.
The biggest superstar in American racing, the unbeaten Zenyatta, has finally moved over from her base at nearby Hollywood Park, and looks suitably fabulous. I can’t tell you how much I’d like her to beat the boys and win the Classic, but the odds are well against her. The satirical free-sheet Indian Charlie has this to say: “Definitely one of the great racemares we’ve seen in the modern era. But if Miss America was playing halfback in the Super Bowl, she’d probably get pretty beat-up too.” Go on girl, prove all those cynical (male) hacks wrong.
Aidan O’Brien’s seven runners stick close together. Rip Van Winkle, favourite for the Classic, looked hot and sweaty yesterday, but the other horses obscure him today and I can’t see him clearly. We do however see the great man himself in the saddle — he’s cantering Lillie Langtry, who runs in the Juvenile Fillies’, in just a baseball cap and no body protector. Will anyone dare tear a strip off him for breaking track rules?
John Gosden’s Turf pair, two-year-old Pounced and the Lloyd-Webber-owned Da Re Mi, work on the grass, moving easily. Da Re Mi’s excellent fifth place in the Arc behind Sea The Stars might nearly be good enough to give her the race, and last year’s winner Conduit looks stroppy and a little out of sorts.
The coolest horse I’ve seen here though is Zensational. Trained by Bob Baffert here at Santa Anita, the grey three-year-old is favourite for the Sprint and has the number one draw. Just after dawn on Monday morning he shot round the track like a bullet — literally the fastest I’ve ever seen a horse go. I swear the track was smoking behind him. We went down to his barn afterwards to see him, and he was being walked around to cool off, his head low, his haunches moving like those of a cheetah. He knows he’s good and his trainer knows he’s good — his headcollar plate says simply “The Beast”.
Stay in touch with the Breeders’ Cup action on Horseandhound.co.uk and don’t miss H&H’s full report in next week’s magazine