ARCADIA California, here they come. And with weather like this, they'd like to come back every year.
The Breeders' Cup, thoroughbred racing's world championships, returns to Santa Anita Park for the sixth time. The world's richest two-day sporting event, this $25 million equine extravaganza starts today with six races and has nine more Saturday.
Topping today's program is the $2 million Ladies' Classic featuring three past Breeders' Cup winners: defending champion Royal Delta and undefeated filly stars Awesome Feather and My Miss Aurelia.
"It's the type of race you could run 10 times and get 10 different outcomes because they're all that good," said Steve Asmussen, who trains My Miss Aurelia.
This marks the third time in five years that Santa Anita has hosted racing's Super Bowl, which traditionally rotates to venues around the country. With much of the Northeast still coping with the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, California has never looked better. Several trainers even New Yorkers suggested maybe the Breeders' Cup should make California its permanent home.
"I've always been a big advocate of moving the Breeders' Cup around," said New York trainer Shug McGaughey on a spectacular Thursday morning at Santa Anita. "But the longer I've been around it I'm beginning to wonder if it might not be better to have it in one place."
East Coast trainers often complain that their horses are at a disadvantage when they ship west. They have a point: California-based horses won eight of 19 Cup races on Santa Anita's main track in 2008 and 2009. A deep California contingent contests this Cup, too, with local favorites in several Cup races.
Among them will be Juvenile Fillies standout Executiveprivilege. Trained by Bob Baffert and co-owned by former Sacramentan Mike Pegram, the 2-year-old filly has won all five of her starts, including back-to-back Grade I stakes.
"She's very special," Baffert said. "You need a lot of horse and a little luck (to win the Juvenile Fillies). You need all that, but she's special."
No matter your home track, sunny warm afternoons in November feel special and hard to resist. The local forecast for today is 77 degrees and 84 on Saturday.
Trainer Mark Casse, who splits time racing in Florida and Toronto, raved about Santa Anita.
"I came out for the last Breeders' Cup (in 2009) here, too and loved it," Casse said. "I brought more horses for the (winter) meet and started looking at houses. All my roots and clients are in the east, so it would be difficult (to move). But look out at those mountains does it get any better?"
Casse recalled the rainy 2007 Breeders' Cup held at New Jersey's Monmouth Park and that was during a normal November storm, not a hurricane.
"To have to run on a racetrack like that wasn't fair, but we were forced to," he said. "But here, no problem. I'm impressed by the track. My horses move over it quite nicely."
Not all trainers want Santa Anita to be the Cup's permanent home.
"It was my understanding that the spirit of the Breeders' Cup was to move the event around to showcase racing around the country," said Todd Pletcher, who has his massive stable split into divisions on both coasts. "I would hope that the spirit would be honored (in the future). But obviously, we couldn't have run it (in New York) this year."
Meanwhile, the Breeders' Cup has rolled out its human star power. A new "international ambassador" program features celebrity chef Bobby Flay (a Cup board member), Hollywood icon Bo Derek (a California state racing commissioner), actress Elizabeth Banks, singer/songwriter Toby Keith, sports radio talk show host Jim Rome (a Cup horse owner), former Major League Baseball manager and player Joe Torre (who owns Classic favorite Game on Dude) and University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino (another Cup horse owner). Their job is to share their Breeders' Cup enthusiasm.
Thursday morning, celebrities mingled with first-time fans and track legends over coffee as they watched Cup horses jog around the track.
"It's back like the old days," observed retired Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye. "It's exciting and it shows that when you have the Super Bowl of racing, it brings out people who really love it."