Tom Kerr sets the scene as Dettori and O'Brien lead charge for raiders
Hard as it might be to believe when a capacity crowd of almost 40,000 pack in to Del Mar on Friday and Saturday, once upon a time this oceanside track struggled to attract punters.
Founded in the 1930s by Bing Crosby and his Hollywood cronies, Del Mar was back then nestled amid virgin countryside, more than 100 miles from the big city lights of Los Angeles.
In those days it was the easy-going vibes and celebrity glamour, not to mention some legendary parties presided over by Crosby and co, that coaxed racegoers down the Pacific coast from the metropolis.
Locals used to cheer the arrival of the raceday express, a custom that endured for decades, although not quite as long as the traditional renditions of Crosby's Where The Surf Meets The Turf, which still bookend racing today.
These days Del Mar has no trouble attracting patrons, who are soon seduced by its cocktail of sun, sea and racing. Perhaps that's why this week's Breeders' Cup, the first to be held at Del Mar, has drawn a record European contingent of 35, including no fewer than 13 from the all-conquering, globetrotting stable of Aidan O'Brien.
That raises the tantalising prospect of Europe enjoying its greatest ever Breeders' Cup, potentially eclipsing 2009's six winners, yet numbers do not equate to success – especially at a racecourse once described by American racing expert Andy Beyer as a "notoriously quirky little track", tight like a coil but with sweeping bends and a stretch that is over in a flash. In the backstretch this week self-belief has mingled with trepidation in the raiders' ranks.
If there were any two men entitled to feel confidence regardless of the challenge ahead it would be O'Brien and Frankie Dettori, who touched down on the west coast this week flying higher than any jumbo jet.
O'Brien is fresh from yet another sensational achievement, breaking Bobby Frankel's record of 25 top-level wins in a calendar year with success in last weekend's Racing Post Trophy, his 26th such victory of 2017.
Leading the Ballydoyle charge for more top-tier wins is his indefatigable champion Highland Reel, who defends his Turf title after success at Santa Anita last year and is set to make his ninth start outside Europe. Even in an era of hard-campaigning international racehorses, Highland Reel stands out as a horse of startling toughness.
Two of Ballydoyle's star juvenile fillies, Happily and September, kick things off for Ballydoyle in Friday's Juvenile Fillies Turf, while his dual Guineas champion Churchill will fight them on the dirt in the concluding Classic on Saturday night.
Dettori, meanwhile, begins his latest Breeders' Cup with 11 wins to his name at the meeting. That goes a long way to explaining why he has come in for the plum ride on Ulysses, who tackles Highland Reel in the Turf, despite Jim Crowley partnering the Sir Michael Stoute-trained colt in all his starts this year.
Crowley would not be wrong to regard that as a rough decision, but Dettori, fresh from wins in the Arc and Champion Stakes, currently has that aura of a man who can achieve the impossible. In this sort of form, and this sort of mood, there is no-one you would rather have in the saddle.
Newcomers look to star
Dettori could get his meeting off to a stunning start on Friday with leading Juvenile Turf hope James Garfield, who represents 28-year-old trainer George Scott.
Scott, rightly relishing every minute of his whirlwind season, is one of a number of Europeans making their Breeders' Cup debut.
There is jumps maestro Gordon Elliott, who saddles Beckford against James Garfield in the Juvenile Turf, and Richard Spencer, also 28, who fields Rajasinghe in the same race.
Sir Mark Prescott, at the other end of his career to Elliott, Scott and Spencer, is also having his first runner at the meeting.
The prospect of the Old Harrovian baronet with a passion for bullfighting mingling with the clean living, gluten-eschewing vegans of southern California is almost as appetising as the rematch between his Marsha and Wesley Ward's Lady Aurelia, who will reprise their Nunthorpe clash in Saturday's Turf Sprint.
World's top racehorse to bring down the curtain
For all the wondrous exploits of Enable, Cracksman and Winx, this year the world's highest-rated racehorse remains Arrogate, the Bob Baffert-trained superstar who will attempt to defend his Breeders' Cup Classic title in the meeting's final race.
His victory over California Chrome at Santa Anita last November was followed by a sensational Dubai World Cup win, but since then the wheels have come off this superstar, who lost his two subsequent runs. The track at which both those shocks occurred? None other than the notoriously quirky Del Mar.
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