Where we say “historic,” people out here instead tend to say “storied.” Historic, after all, is a relative concept – especially here on the West Coast, the last soil settled. When Saratoga staged its first meeting, in 1863, the population of Los Angeles was still only 5,000. Nonetheless this is a setting for the ages. One of the few places in the world, maybe, a trainer might prefer to Kingston Warren; even a trainer of the old school, like Henry Candy, who showed up at the quarantine barn this morning complete with baseball cap.
“I think I’ll be jettisoning that when I get home,” he said wryly. But he’s unmistakably buying into the whole jaunt, talking rather like someone who sees his first yellow cab in New York or his first gondola in Venice. “I’ve seen it so often on television but now here I am and it’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. “And Limato is absolutely loving it, too. He’s having a wonderful time. When we put him through the stalls this morning and the bell rang, Harry (Bentley) said it was the quickest he’d ever jumped and that he’d nearly fallen off.”
A far cry from the solitary grandeur of his home gallops, with their soundless downland mattress. “I think I could get used to it, though,” Candy said. “It would be great fun, seeing all the action in the mornings. But I don’t suppose they’d have me, at my age.”
That’s how seductive this place is. Believe me, if I live long enough and can someday, somehow, again afford a leg in a horse, it’ll be attached to one stabled here. Don’t care how fast or slow it runs, so long as I can watch it among the hundreds spinning round the track every morning, from the bullets along the rail to the goofy youngsters trying to nibble their ponies as they high-step round the outside.
All the Breeders’ Cup entries wear named saddlecloths, but nobody had any trouble identifying the chestnut who trotted back past the crowd at Clockers’ Corner at first light. They gave California Chrome such a cheer that he started bucking and rearing in excitement. Not that his exercise rider seemed to mind, engaging enthusiastically with the fans. He’s become something of a celebrity in his own right, a native of Watts full of freewheeling African American banter. “Thing about the Chrome, the Chrome brings it home,” he says. “Chrome will always give you a whole lotta grit and run.”
The atmosphere on the backstretch, simmering nicely all week, is now frothing with anticipation. For we might just get a race for the ages, too, on Saturday. There is a chance. Only a chance, maybe. This is horseracing, after all. One of the main actors will maybe fluff his lines. But maybe Chrome and Arrogate will start eyeballing each other leaving the back stretch, pulling clear with every stride. And then who knows? We could be looking at one of the greatest showdowns staged before the art deco stands – a historic standard, relatively speaking, built as it was in 1934 by Gordon Kaufmann. (Born in Forest Hill, and best known for his work on the Hoover Dam.) Equally, of course, we may yet find that we have all come up with the right script only to miscast the actors. Which brings us on to Frosted, the third man of the Classic….
For Arrogate is not the only horse in the field to have produced a freakshow in one of the great staging posts of the American calendar. Arrogate won the Travers by 13 and a half lengths for a Beyer Speed Figure of 122. But the winner of the Met Mile, the marquee dirt race of the year at the trip, topped that twice over: a margin exceeding 14 lengths and a Beyer of 123.
Everyone has decided that Frosted will never do anything along those lines over this longer distance. But you do wonder how much that assumption merely reflects – and serves – the conveniently binary narrative of a high-noon stand-off between Arrogate and Chrome. Though his profile at the trip is admittedly patchy, the fact is that Frosted surged from 14th to fourth in his Kentucky Derby stretch run last year. And his own time, when chasing home the Triple Crown winner, would have won 11 out of the last 12 Belmonts. Sure, he has some flat runs at the trip: he seemed to bounce from an impressive prep in the Dubai World Cup, and looked a spent force after a hard old campaign in last year’s Classic.
“But American Pharoah was tough on everybody in that crop,” says Frosted’s trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. “In the Travers we lost our rider 30 minutes before the race and his replacement took on American Pharoah. And that didn’t do either of them any good. (The pair duly mugged, after wild mid-race fractions, by Keen Ice.) In the Kentucky Derby, Frosted was the only one making up ground in the stretch. The distance is not an issue. The only issue is those other two horses.”
The Met was his first race after Dubai, and a ten-week break, and Frosted duly arrives here fresh from a private training facility at Saratoga. “We know he goes with the tank full and his energy levels high,” McLaughlin said. “He’s been training right-handed on a synthetic track so to come back here and go left on the dirt again is like a vitamin shot to him. He’s bigger, he’s stronger, he couldn’t be doing better. The Met Mile was just off the charts. It was a wow race, for him to be a length in front at the quarter pole and win by 14. I guess it was a perfect storm somehow, back in the US, back on Lasix, back in a one-turn mile. But we have a winning race in us.”
McLaughlin brought down a hotpot in the 2006 Classic when Invasor beat Bernardini, likewise off a lay-off. And win, lose or draw, he introduces a valuable third dimension to the Classic. We should all be duly grateful that his owners, characteristically, rejected the soft option of the Dirt Mile. “We want to be the best,” shrugs McLaughlin. “So we’ve got to beat the best.”
Personally I’m not at all convinced the extension to a two-day championship has worked. As it is, not only must I reluctantly sign off these dispatches from the backstretch, but there is an inevitable dilution of the meeting’s intensity. Imagine, for instance, if they still ran the Distaff on the one card – because this one is another absolute belter. Don’t take my word for it. Ask Gary Stevens.
“On paper this is the best Distaff I’ve ridden in,” said Beholder’s jockey. “And I can go back to 1988, Winning Colors and Personal Ensign.” And get this. “I don’t want to take anything away from years past,” he said. “But Beholder is the best horse I’ve ever ridden.”
She’s not even favourite. Another outstanding veteran, Mike Smith, rides the unbeaten three-year-old Songbird. He has been a little more circumspect than Stevens, when invited to compare his mount with Zenyatta – stressing their radically different profiles in terms of precocity and running style. But while Smith is glad that he never had to make a definitive choice, he knows that the comparisons will be a lot more meaningful once his latest beauty has looked in the eye of Beholder.
And so it goes on. Clearly a vintage Mile, for instance. Candy was appalled when he glimpsed Alice Springs this morning. “She looks absolutely fantastic,” he grumbled. He will have to hope that the scurrilous backstretch parodist Indian Charlie may be on to something when he wrote that Aidan O’Brien “will stand all his Breeders’ Cup starters in the gate this morning to get them familiar with standing in the gate and getting left five lengths.” But even Indian Charlie can’t bring himself to disrespect “the greatest horse trainer in the world,” conceding that he’s going to be saddling winners whatever happens at the gate.
Obviously Limato also has to tackle the great Tepin, whose trainer Mark Casse admits that he “can see her running the race of her life – and still getting beat.” Casse is meanwhile contributing a big player to a really deep edition of the Juvenile in Classic Empire. “I’ve been training 37 years and after he won the Bashford I said I had never had a more impressive two-year-old winner,” he said. That was the colt’s stakes debut and you get the impression Casse had chosen the venue advisedly: because the winner today will certainly be early favourite for a return to Churchill Downs next May.
But rival trainer Dale Romans – think Preakness winner Shackleford, Dubai World Cup winner Roses In May, etc – freely describes Not This Time as potentially the best of his career. And then there’s the wild card, Three Rules, who has been beating up Florida-breds for an aggregate winning margin of 31 lengths in five starts. “If you hit the board in this race, you’re a good horse,” said his trainer Jose Pinchin. “If you win this race, you’re a great horse.”
You can say that again. And again. And again.
Chris McGrath is the author of Mr Darley's Arabian, a racing history recently shortlisted for William Hill Sports Book of the Year. Previously he was racing correspondent of The Independent for seven years, winning Racing Journalist of the Year twice.