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Monday, 21 January, 2019

Postcard from the track where nobody's in a hurry but the horses

Taking a stroll: Del Mar is a laidback sort of place, unless you're a racehorse
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Since the Breeders' Cup's 1984 inaugural meeting at Hollywood Park the fixture has flitted between venues like a super group on tour, visiting 11 different racecourses over its 33 year history.

Last year's host Santa Anita, 110 miles up the Pacific coast in Los Angeles, has staged the Breeders' Cup a record nine times. Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby and the famous twin spires, is next on eight.

Del Mar, this year's venue, is currently on zero – it will become the 12th track to host the meeting when it stages this week's $28 million extravaganza.

So what does Del Mar bring to the table? Most obviously, this is a track that is rooted firmly in its south California coastal location – Del Mar is Spanish for 'from the sea' – and the track's signage and marketing takes full advantage of this idyllic seaside setting: Del Mar is variously branded the 'surfside race place' and 'where the surf meets the turf'.

Not to be a stickler for the facts or anything, but in truth it takes a trip to the top of the grandstand and precarious lean off a trackside balcony to catch a glimpse of the surf-flecked Pacific a few hundred feet away, separated from the turf by the dirt course, a car park, a railway line and a lagoon. 

Where the surf meets the lagoon, parking lot, train track then turf does not make a very good slogan, of course.

The atmosphere here is very different to that of Santa Anita, despite their proximity. Santa Anita is California's premier track and the back stretch and training barns in the run-up to the Breeders' Cup are a hive of activity, with 150-odd Breeders' Cup contenders mingling with the hundreds of horses permanently stabled at the LA racecourse.

By contrast, Del Mar, founded by Bing Crosby and his Hollywood mates in 1937, feels quiet, if not downright sleepy. Wander the stables before dawn and there is barely a jingling halter to break the silence. If Santa Anita before trackwork is like an equine Piccadilly Circus, Del Mar is more of a mini-roundabout in Stepney.

Del Mar's laidback atmosphere is all part of its appeal, though. My globetrotting colleague Nicholas Godfrey's latest book, Postcards from the World of Horse Racing, contains the perfect description of the track from its former publicity executive Eddie Read.

Del Mar, he said, is a place where nobody's in a hurry but the horses.

Gasps for Arrogate the only moment of drama in draw bore

It was down to the actual ocean on Monday evening for the Breeders' Cup post-position draw ceremony – hundreds of surfers were riding the waves mere metres from the marquee where the event took place.

Europeans fared broadly well at this ceremony, largely avoiding difficult outside gates, but that fact will have gone unnoticed by most of the attendees, who paid about as much attention to the unfolding draw as did the seabirds circling overhead.

They could hardly be blamed for that, since the PA system was feeble and the bar was free. Nor, to be fair, can blame be laid at the feet of the organisers. Having witnessed draw ceremonies in all corners of the racing globe I can honestly say that never yet has there been a successful attempt to turn the drawing of numbers out of a tombola into a compelling spectator event.

The one exception to that was the moment Arrogate was assigned stall one in the Classic. It'll likely do little to dampen what feels like a gathering weight of support behind the world's highest-rated racehorse, but the prospect of Bob Baffert's superstar springing from a difficult inside gate was greeted from gasps from the audience, who were either shocked by the tough draw or had just heard the free bar was out of bourbon.

Spencer under the radar again with Rajasinghe

This is a meeting of firsts. Not only is Del Mar making its debut as a Breeders' Cup host, but several among the travelling contingent of British and Irish trainers are also making their World Championships debut.

Among them is Richard Spencer, who only sent out his first runner a year and a half ago but is already getting used to gracing some of the world's biggest racing stages thanks to his Coventry winner Rajasinghe, who runs in the Juvenile Turf.

Rajasinghe's 11-1 win at Royal Ascot prompted plenty to do a quick google and his trainer again believes his runner, a general 25-1 shot in a fiercely competitive race, is primed to catch punters unawares.

"We're coming here a bit like Ascot where we're the underdogs, no one is worried about us, but we proved a point there and hopefully his last run has put everyone off," said Spencer, referring to Rajasinghe's 11th-placed finish in the Dewhurst, a below-par performance the 28-year-old trainer said was attributable to unsuitably soft ground.

Spencer, however, was one of the few Europeans dealt a rough hand at the draw ceremony – Rajasinghe drew stall 13, leaving Steve Donohoe in the saddle with a big task on Friday night.

Palmer sure he has right race for Brave this time

It takes courage to admit you got something wrong but Hugo Palmer was admirably upfront about his experience at last year's Breeders' Cup, admitting he was asking the impossible of Home Of The Brave by running him in the Turf Sprint, in which he finished 11th.

"As soon as I saw the track last year I realised we were in the wrong race," Palmer said. "Ben Cecil said to me the first morning I was there 'I hope your horse is fast, I always think of this race as a more like a five furlong race' – I was like 'okay, we're not going to be winning that!'"

Although readily conceding seven-furlong specialist Home Of The Brave is up against it in the Mile, where he will face fellow Godolphin runner Ribchester, Palmer is confident his sole runner at this year's meeting has a better chance than 20-1 odds might suggest.

"I think this is the ideal race for him," he said. "He's got an each-way form chance anyway and if we can get him into a striking position bigger horses might not like the turns and short straight as much as he will."

Keep up to date with all the latest Breeders' Cup news direct from Tom Kerr at Del Mar at



We're coming here a bit like Ascot where we're the underdogs, no one is worried about us
E.W. Terms
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