Welcome to Santa Anita

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It’s the mountains. Ryan Clancy, 20, on his first trip to Santa Anita walked around the grandstand at Clocker’s Corner and stopped. Part gasp, close to a wow, but not really a word. An audible but indecipherable reaction. Certainly, an un-typable response, as he looked up and saw the San Gabriel Mountains for the first time. Painted with one precise stroke, a perfect swish, across the skyline, they stand ethereal across the sky. Back lit. Looming.

The Breeders’ Cup is back at Santa Anita. There is an editorial there somewhere, about returning to Santa Anita again and again, it’s probably not what the Breeders’ Cup was about when it started, but, while you’re here, you simply enjoy it. It’s the best venue for it, no doubt. The weather, the city, the downhill turf course, the horses, the people, the mountains.

As always, the day goes fast, the races hit in rapid fire. Mike Smith won the first, the Marathon, aboard London Bridge. He galloped the 3-year-old earlier in the week, the British-based son of Arch slid around the dirt on turf Shoes. The Hall of Famer came back and suggested Quarter Horse Shoes. They worked, as he won a slog.

Smith increased his lead as the all-time leader in Breeders’ Cup wins with a slick ride about British-based Outstrip, sliding through horses like he was buttering toast, nailing Giovanni Boldini and Bobby’s Kitten late. On his way to the jocks’ room, Smith offered the perfect description of the light-moving grey colt, “He’s a like a racecar. You can turn him on, turn him off, turn him on, turn him off. You’ll hear a lot more from this horse.”

California speed dominated the Dirt Mile as Goldencents finally got the distance he’s craved all his life. He tried the Triple Crown, too far. He tried sprints, too short. He put his rivals on the back foot from the beginning, ripping through a half mile in 44.75 and three quarters in 1:08.64. Speed wins.

The prettiest filly in the Juvenile Fillies Turf proved she was the fastest too as Chriselliam dominated 13 rivals. Favorite Vorda looked like a sprinter in the paddock, she failed to threaten, winding up seventh. The British continued their dominance in the turf events.

A six-horse field converged for the feature. Short but sweet. Reigning champ Royal Delta, 5, took on a trio of talented 3-year-old fillies, Beholder, Princess Of Sylmar and Close Hatches. Mike Smith laid low across Royal Delta’s neck and urged for response as the gates opened. She didn’t respond. John Velazquez took what they gave him, putting Authenticity on the lead. Gary Stevens perched motionless, hovering over Beholder’s withers, easing the one-time front-runner into fourth. Princess Of Sylmar lagged. The table was set, then Stevens pulled the table cloth. Leaving the backstretch, Beholder effortlessly went past Royal Delta, then Authenticity. It was all over. Beholder skipped for fun, Close Hatches rallied for second, Authenticity finished third, Royal Delta finished fourth, head low, Smith holding her together.

Royal Delta received an ovation from the crowd, probably the last time they’ll see her. Another changing of the guards. Right there for everybody to see. Royal Delta, the vanquished champion walking one direction. Beholder, the new champion walking through the tunnel, the paddock and to the test barn. Purple and yellow petals from the Breeders’ Cup blanket still in her mane.

“I’m at a loss for words,” Smith said. “It wasn’t like she got outrun, she didn’t run. She usually swells up when she switches to her left leads in the turns. Nothing today. I don’t know. It just wasn’t her.”

Smith won two on the day, but lost the big one.

At the end of the day, Ryan and I walked out of the grandstand, looking for the hotel shuttle, we walked toward the backstretch, realizing we had no idea where it was to pick us up, then turned around and tried to get our bearings. A bay filly walked out of the test barn, a man on both sides, lip shank providing the only control. Her neck craning for freedom. Ryan said, ‘Who is paddock schooling now?” I said, “I think that’s Beholder.” Getting closer, seeing her halter. Indeed, it was Beholder. A couple of fans clattered behind her, the bay filly threw her head in the air and bucked, dirt flicked across the white rails along the horse path.

Ryan uttered the same sound as he did when he saw the mountains in the morning.