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How will Breeders’ Cup play in the bluegrass?

American Pharoah will race for the final time Saturday. He will be favored in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
American Pharoah will race for the final time Saturday. He will be favored in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Associated Press

Keeneland has been waiting 32 years for this star turn. Now, it has all the hallmarks of a bluegrass blockbuster.

On Friday and Saturday, the Breeders’ Cup will be held for the first time at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

“This is a return to Breeders’ Cup’s roots,” said Tom Hammond, who will host NBC’s broadcast. “I think it’s going to be very special.”

The cast for the $24.5 million world thoroughbred championships could not be more accomplished. Among the 175 horses entered in 13 stakes are American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown champion in 37 years, and European superstar Golden Horn, winner of France’s Arc de Triomphe. They’ll be prohibitive favorites in Saturday’s $5 million Classic and $3 million Turf, respectively.

All the ingredients are there for the greatest Classic in the 32-year history of the Breeders’ Cup.

Tom Hammond, NBC’s Breeders’ Cup host

American Pharoah, racing for the final time, will face a stellar field in the Classic. Keen Ice upset American Pharoah in the Travers, the Triple Crown winner’s most recent start. Frosted was second in the Belmont Stakes and easily won the Pennsylvania Derby last month. Major stakes winners Honor Code, Tonalist and Effinex represent New York. Ireland’s Gleneagles has won three Group I stakes in the United Kingdom. Hard Aces and Smooth Roller have top California stakes victories at Santa Anita Park.

“All the ingredients are there for the greatest Classic in the 32-year history of the Breeders’ Cup,” Hammond said.

The horse most handicappers thought would be American Pharoah’s strongest challenge scratched Thursday. The ultra-consistent mare Beholder, a two-time Breeders’ Cup winner and undefeated in 2015, was withdrawn by trainer Richard Mandella because of blood in her lungs, found after a post-workout examination.

“It’s still a great race,” Mandella said. “I just wish I was part of it.”

American Pharoah’s training at Santa Anita included a 46.60-second half-mile blowout Monday before he shipped to Kentucky. After the Classic, the 3-year-old colt, owned by Ahmed Zayat, will be retired to stallion duty at Ashford Stud in Versailles, 13 miles from Keeneland.

“It’s been an honor and a pleasure to train him,” said Bob Baffert, American Pharoah’s trainer. “It’s been so incredible that I just want to make sure that when I lead him up there, he’s really sharp.”

Keeneland has been known more for selling Breeders’ Cup contenders than hosting them. Winners of 88 Breeders’ Cup races have walked through Keeneland’s famous auction ring.

175 Horses entered in the 13 Breeders’ Cup races

As for racing, Keeneland has been an anomaly. The main dirt oval is 1 1/16 miles – a first for Breeders’ Cup tracks – and has two finish lines, which could possibly confuse visiting jockeys not used to the novel configuration. Three races – Friday’s Dirt Mile and Saturday’s Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies – will finish at the  1/16 th pole.

Keeneland’s turf course should be in pristine shape; it hardly gets used. Designed as a showplace for selling blue-blooded horses, the boutique track hosts two short meets a year with fewer than 40 total racing days. A haven for closers, the turf course has one of the longest stretch runs – 1,190 feet – in American grass racing.

Built in 1936, Keeneland’s limestone grandstand seats just 8,800 fans. By comparison, Santa Anita – which hosted the past three Breeders’ Cups – has permanent seats for more than 50,000. Two-day attendance at last year’s Breeders’ Cup was 98,319.

For the Breeders’ Cup, Keeneland added about 13,000 bleacher seats and capped attendance at 45,000 for each day.

More than 40 starters prepped in California before heading to Kentucky. Of those, five also were bred in California: Big Macher (Sprint), Jimmy Bouncer (Turf Sprint), Masochistic (Sprint), Ralis (Juvenile) and Warren’s Veneda (Distaff).

Jerry Hollendorfer, perennially Northern California’s top trainer, will saddle three starters: undefeated Songbird (Juvenile Fillies), Super Majesty (Filly & Mare Sprint) and Wild Dude (Sprint). Front-running Songbird, favored in the Juvenile Fillies, has impressed her trainer with steady progress.

“She’s avoided all the (common health or training) problems and has done everything right on top,” Hollendorfer said. “Her demeanor around the barn is great; nothing seems to upset her.”

Debbie Arrington: 916-321-1075, @debarrington

Breeders’ Cup XXXII

  • Where: Keeneland Race Course, Lexington, Ky.
  • When: Today, 12:30 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.; Classic is Saturday, 2:35 p.m.
  • TV: Friday, noon, NBCSN; Saturday, 10 a.m., NBCSN, and 1 p.m., Ch. 3
  • Watch and wager: Cal Expo will have live simulcasting both days. Information: (916) 263-3279.
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