ARCADIA, Calif. — The crowd backed him with its money and its mouth, bellowing on tiptoes as Curlin took the lead at the top of the stretch. Too soon it was over because this Breeders' Cup was about long shots, a new surface and European imports, not America's best horse.
Defending champion Curlin was upset in the $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita on Saturday, demoted to a fourth-place finish behind 13-1 shot Raven's Pass from Britain.
Neither reigning horse of the year Curlin nor Raven's Pass had raced on a synthetic surface. But Raven's Pass trains on something similar, and European horses used to running on turf often make an easier transition to synthetics.
"Maybe he's not a synthetic surface specialist," said Curlin's jockey, Robby Albarado. "He was paddling around. These horses (Raven's Pass and second-place Henrythenavigator) are great turf horses, and it seemed like the synthetics played like a turf course."
Raven's Pass capped a day of long-shot upsets at the season-ending championships, with European horses winning five of nine races. Seven of the winners at Santa Anita were long shots.
Garrett Gomez had a big afternoon, too, becoming the first jockey to win three races in one day in the event's history. And he won the Filly & Mare Turf on opening day Friday.
The richest two days in thoroughbred racing went off without a hitch, surely relieving Breeders' Cup officials who were mindful of Eight Belles' fatal breakdown after this year's Kentucky Derby and George Washington being euthanized on the track after last year's Classic at New Jersey's Monmouth Park.
"I feel it's probably the single most important thing that had to happen at this event for this industry at this particular time," Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli said of the decision to switch to a synthetic surface for the first time in the 25-year history of the Breeders' Cup. "I'd say Santa Anita has made some believers."
The surface was a new experience for 4-5 favorite Curlin, who left the starting gate near the back of the pack. Entering the final turn, Albarado asked Curlin to pick up the pace, and he responded with an explosive move to take a narrow lead.
When Curlin moved, Raven's Pass was hot on his tail and went by him, winning by 1¾ lengths.
"Once I got behind Curlin, I said, 'That's half the job done. He's going to take me there, and sure he did,' " jockey Frankie Dettori said. "Then it was a worry moment for a split second when I asked him, would he pick up or would he falter on the distance, but he did pick up."
The only remaining challenge came from Henrythenavigator, who found room on the inside to finish second. Tiago also went by Curlin to finish third.
Raven's Pass ran 1¼ miles in a track record 1:59.27.
"What a day to cherish," said trainer John Gosden, who trained at Santa Anita for 11 years until returning to Europe in 1988. "Sometimes things just go right."
Meanwhile, Saturday's card featured three double-winners — trainers Bob Baffert and Gosden and jockey Dettori.