The Breeders' Cup World Championships has never faced as many issues as in this year's silver anniversary edition.
When the two-day, $25.5-million card gets under way this afternoon at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif., a synthetic racing surface called Pro-Ride will be used for the first time, horses aren't allowed to be on steroids, and a sagging economy is expected to challenge the wagering handle.
It could still turn out to be a classic.
Curlin, arguably the biggest name of 160 horses in the 14 races, could lock up consecutive horse of the year honors with a repeat win in the $5-million Classic on Saturday. But an off day by North America's leading career money earner could open the door for Zenyatta.
Zenyatta takes an unbeaten record into today's $2-million Ladies Classic, formerly called the Distaff. A victory over seven rivals, including 2007 winner Ginger Punch, would lift Zenyatta's career mark to 9-0, 7-0 this year. With Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Big Brown retired with a hoof injury, trainer John Shirreffs could make a case for his 4-year-old filly to achieve the top postseason award. The daughter of Street Cry, named for the 1980 Police album Zenyatta Mondatta, seeks her fourth win at Grade I this year along with three at Grade II.
Curlin majority owner Jess Jackson believes his horse has the edge.
"We think he's already accomplished horse of the year," Jackson said. "But it's up to you guys (voters) to tell us whether a proud owner is right or wrong."
Curlin (7-5) and Zenyatta (3-5) are the biggest prerace favorites.
The five BC races today at Santa Anita are for females, beginning with the Filly and Mare Sprint (Race 3) and capped by the Ladies Classic (Race 7). There are nine races on Saturday. The Marathon (Race 1) kicks off the action, highlighted by the Classic (Race 9). Simulcast wagering on the BC card is available at Tampa Bay Downs in Oldsmar, Derby Lane in St. Petersburg and Tampa Greyhound Track.
In Las Vegas, Monte Carlo Resort and Casino race and sports book supervisor Craig Barmazel anticipates business to be brisk.
"Our handle will probably be up 10 times over any other day," Barmazel said. "It's bigger than the Kentucky Derby, because that's just one race. It doesn't look like we're going to have many 1-5 favorites. Our customers like it when there are three or four horses around 4-1; the trifectas and superfectas pay more if they can hit them."
Although the anticipated Big Brown-Curlin showdown didn't materialize, Curlin is expected to face a stern test under trainer Steve Asmussen. The 4-year-old Smart Strike colt will race on a synthetic track for the first time and faces 11 rivals, including international foes Casino Drive, Champs Elysees, Duke of Marmalade, Henrythenavigator and Raven's Pass.
Two TBD graduates, Go Between and Smooth Air, also are entered. While Smooth Air, a third-place finisher in this year's Sam F. Davis Stakes, is the longest shot at 50-1, Go Between is capable of springing a surprise.
Go Between, third choice at 8-1, has excelled on synthetic surfaces for Ocala owner Peter Vegso and trainer Bill Mott. The 5-year-old Point Given horse, winner of the 2007 Cherokee River Stable Turf Classic at TBD, has won two Grade I $1-million races this year in California: Sunshine Millions Classic at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, and Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Defeating Curlin would be gratifying for Mott. When Curlin set the career earnings record ($10,246,800) with a victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 27 at Belmont Park in Elmont, N.Y., he surpassed Cigar, a Mott trainee.
Another TBD runner to watch is Delightful Kiss in the $500,000 Marathon. A third-place finisher in the 2007 Tampa Bay Derby, Delightful Kiss has set track records in his past two Grade III victories: All American Stakes at Golden Gate Fields in Berkeley, Calif., and Turfway Park Fall Challenge in Florence, Ky.
TWO SCRATCHES: Elusive Bluff won't run in Saturday's Juvenile because of a bruised foot, and Indyanne is out of today's Filly & Mare Sprint because of a cough and a fever.