Breeders' Cup: Santa Anita in the spotlight after racehorse welfare concerns

By Cornelius LysaghtBBC horse racing correspondent
Frankie Dettori
Frankie Dettori is hoping to be among the winners again at the Breeders' Cup

All the razzmatazz and the welcoming smiles will be there at the opening of the 36th staging of flat racing's Breeders' Cup, but behind the scenes nerves are jangling.

It's because preparations at Santa Anita, California, for the $28m (£22m) 'world championship of horse racing' have been taking place against a backdrop rather uglier than the spectacular expanse of the distant San Gabriel Mountains.

The historic racetrack has found itself in the eye of a welfare storm following the deaths on its courses of 60 horses since the beginning of 2018, either during training - 1,800 are stabled trackside - or while racing - the incidents have taken place on both dirt and turf.

Animal rights protests have become commonplace, the California authorities are involved and a usually indifferent general media has been shining a bright light on events; the state regulator, the California Horse Racing Board, will publish the results of its inquiry before Christmas.

For a time the owner, The Stronach Group, which has been accused of putting profit (the number of fixtures) before safety, shut up shop. On re-opening, whip, veterinary and, crucially, medication rules - which, like much of the rest of the US, lag behind those in Europe - were tightened.

Things have improved markedly but there have been further fatalities, though at a much lower rate.

With all of the global interest that comes with the Breeders Cup being in town, officials dread the possibility of anything happening to any runners - 30-plus from Europe - during what is Santa Anita's 10th hosting of the two-day event.

However, Aidan O'Brien, whose County Tipperary-based team makes up half of the trans-Atlantic travellers, is one trainer satisfied with the measures in place.

He said: "We know everyone is doing their best and are throwing everything they have at it.

"We're very confident that they will have it [conditions] as good as they can possibly have it."

Breeders Cup 2018 race
The event will be held at the Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, California

While star-mare Magical is absent with a temperature - and she now won't race again - O'Brien's challenge is still spearheaded by some of the 2019 season's leading names.

Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck lines up as a leading contender in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Turf. Earlier that day, the Mile race is a target for O'Brien's Circus Maximus.

Arizona, which has very decent form in defeat by the season's outstanding two-year-olds Pinatubo and Earthlight, goes for Friday's Juvenile Turf.

Some other names to look out for…

  • A prolific year for Jessie Harrington, another Irish trainer, is tipped to continue when Albigna and jockey Shane Foley go for the Juvenile Fillies Turf race on the fixture's day one.
  • The Richard Hannon/Sean Levey trainer-jockey combo, which scored a popular top-grade success with King Of Change on British Champions Day at Ascot, now looks to rule on an international stage with 2018 1,000 Guineas winner Billesdon Brook in the Filly and Mare Turf race on day two.
  • Apart from Circus Maximus, on which jockey Ryan Moore will ride in the silks of the Niarchos family, there's a strong European contingent in the Mile race. The David O'Meara-trained pair Lord Glitters and Suedois, and Space Traveller (Richard Fahey) have all travelled from stables in Yorkshire.
  • British-born Sophie Doyle attempts to become the third female jockey to ride a Breeders Cup-race winner when partnering well-fancied Street Band in Saturday's Distaff race. If successful, Doyle, Chicago-based sister of top jockey James, would join Julie Krone and Rosie Napravnik on the roll of honour.
  • While the Aidan O'Brien-trained Turf race hope Anthony Van Dyck has been out of luck since his Derby success in June, the race includes a big hope that's been in unstoppable form. Bricks and Mortar, trained by Chad Brown, is undefeated in six races - though, perhaps significantly, he's never been tested over a distance as far as the race's mile-and-a-half.
  • Finally, the owners of a leading contender for Saturday's Filly and Mare Sprint, a daughter of the stallion Into Mischief, did indeed have mischief on their minds when naming her Covfefe. Covfefe was the word that was posted apparently erroneously in a late-night Twitter rant by Donald Trump about negative 'coverage', and which has now been adopted in the US as a synonym for social media gaff. And, since you ask, the horse's credentials are far from fake.

The Breeders' Cup runs 1-2 November

Anthony Van Dyck
Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck lines up as a leading contender in Saturday's Breeders' Cup Turf