Welcome To Santa Anita

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“You’ve never been here?”

It happened – oh, I don’t know – a half-dozen times this morning. And, no, I’ve never been to Santa Anita Park, host of the 2016 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, until today. What a place. It’s a classic American racetrack, one I’d somehow never been to in my 51 years on Earth.

Santa Anita has a backside that will make a historian drool. There’s a sign commemorating the barn Seabiscuit lived in. Bob Baffert’s barn might be held up by all the championship signs on the wall. There are old-school hotwalking machines, immaculate horsepaths and dozens of low-slung wood-sided racetrack barns. It’s tight, but feels less crowded than some stable areas partly because of the network of horsepaths, partly because there aren’t many cars and partly because it’s California and cool and smooth or something. There’s a “receiving barn” that is more like an assembly barn where horses gather before each race. It’s round, like the paddock at Laurel Park and unique in every way.

And then there are the mountains. Early in the morning, the San Gabriels would just be darkness out there in the background. Once the sun comes up, they’re like something Munnings painted behind some stellar scene on the downs.

Then there’s the grandstand building. It runs almost the length of the stretch, features outdoor seating, a tiered apron and cool touches like floor murals, staircases, classic signs, restaurants, bars, boxes and dining options on the upper levels. Out back are the paddock and parade ring – love how the saddling area is lowered to give spectators a better view. More garden than racing facility, the area includes trees, benches, places to mingle and meander, sculptures of California legends from Zenyatta to Toby (Charlie Whittingham’s dog).

Then there’s the racetrack, placed between the grandstand and the mountains with great care. A dirt track, a turf course and a dirt training track surround an infield village. The hillside turf course is out there somewhere, angling in and down from the hill and connecting on the turn.

The combined result is a sports arena with few peers. If you don’t like Santa Anita, built in 1934, there is no hope for you.

So why haven’t I been here before now? It just never worked out before this year. Work, family, expenses, you know the drill. This time around, I got there.

I hopped on the 8:15 (takeoff more like 8:30) flight out of BWI Thursday night, picked up an Uber at LAX and wound up in Old Town Pasadena about midnight (3 a.m. Eastern). This morning I picked up a credential at the hotel and caught a shuttle to the track with basically no idea what to expect. After somebody told me they closed the track early to get ready for today’s early post time, I didn’t expect to see any training and I didn’t. Ah well.

I did see a few horses wandering about, even bumped into Runhappy and his goat, and had an egg sandwich at Clocker’s Corner. Today, four Breeders’ Cup races highlight a full day of racing. The Distaff, wow what a race, pits champions Songbird, Stellar Wind and Beholder. Crazy good race. Plus there’s the Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Dirt Mile. It will be fun to get a look at the Europeans. 

Tomorrow, it’s the big enchilada – massive races at every turn capped by the $6 million Classic headed by California Chrome. I haven’t seen him run in person since the 2014 Pennsylvania Derby, but I remember his 2014 Preakness like it just happened. 

Thanks for having me, Santa Anita. Now let’s get to the races.