DEL MAR, Calif. -- A track next to the ocean in a tony suburban community hardly seems the place for an old-fashioned Western shootout. That's supposed to take place in some dusty town, where the people and the liquor are hard.
But this year's Breeders' Cup Classic is shaping up as a showdown for Horse of the Year, with Arrogate, Collected, and Gun Runner all pointing to the race, each with a legitimate shot at the year-end title. Ready. Aim. Fire your best shot.
The Classic, worth $6 million, is the richest and most important of the 13 Breeders' Cup races that will be run Nov. 3-4, when Del Mar -- the popular seaside track that opened 80 years ago -- plays host to the Breeders' Cup for the first time.
This will be the 34th Breeders' Cup, and its presence here at Del Mar marks another significant chapter in this track's ascension from a sleepy summertime venue -- where track publicist Eddie Read said, "No one's in a hurry but the horses" -- to a major player on the national scene.
The track's original grandstand was only replaced in the early 1990s, concurrent with the track's first $1 million race, the Pacific Classic. And, in a perverse twist, it was the shuttering of Hollywood Park -- which hosted the very first Breeders' Cup in 1984 and two more -- at the end of 2013 that gave Del Mar a fall meeting and made hosting the Breeders' Cup a possibility.
Because the event is at Del Mar, this Classic is far more intriguing than it appeared earlier this year.
Arrogate, winner of last year's Classic at Santa Anita, was unquestionably the best horse in the world during the first half of the year, when he won the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream and the Dubai World Cup at Meydan. But his position has become tenuous owing to two losses this summer at Del Mar, including in the Pacific Classic to Collected, who is unbeaten this year.
Meanwhile, Gun Runner has returned from his second-place finish to Arrogate in Dubai seemingly better than ever. He has won three straight races and will soon head west to look for revenge. By the end of the month, all three will be training at Santa Anita.
Arrogate and Gun Runner will not race until the Classic, while Collected could run in the Grade 1, $300,000 Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Sept. 30 or simply await the Classic.
Bob Baffert, who trains Arrogate and Collected, has won the Classic the last three years with Bayern, American Pharoah, and Arrogate. He is using the same template as last year with Arrogate, preferring to bring him into the Classic fresh rather than squeeze in a prep race. As he did with Arrogate last year following the Travers and with American Pharoah the year before that following the 2015 Travers, Arrogate had an easy last few days of August and first half of September. He returned to the work tab this week.
"He looked good. I'm happy with how he looked today," Baffert said after Arrogate worked Monday, his first drill since the Pacific Classic 30 days earlier.
Gun Runner will head to Santa Anita early next week after working at Churchill Downs. He also arrived early last year to prepare for the Dirt Mile, in which he finished second. Last year, though, he trained and raced at Santa Anita. This year, with Del Mar's track not opening for training again until Oct. 23, Gun Runner initially will train at Santa Anita before going to Del Mar.
Steve Asmussen, Gun Runner's trainer, earlier this year wanted to head straight to Del Mar well in advance of the Breeders' Cup. When he learned that would not be possible, he decided it was still important to get Gun Runner on West Coast time, even if it meant moving from Churchill to Santa Anita and then to Del Mar.
At the moment, the older horses pointing to the Classic appear to be vastly superior to the 3-year-olds. West Coast, perhaps the best 3-year-old at present, is scheduled to run Saturday in the Grade 1, $1 million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing against Irap, while Haskell Invitational winner Girvin is slated to go in the Grade 3, $400,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington on Sunday. Both of those races are at 1 1/8 miles.
The Classic is the last of the 13 Breeders' Cup races. There are four races on Nov. 3, headed by the Distaff, and nine on Nov. 4. The purses total more than $26 million.
Mike Watchmaker, Daily Racing Form's national handicapper, has Gun Runner favored at 9-5 to Arrogate's 2-1 on his future line for the Classic. Collected is next at 6-1.
Other current favorites for Watchmaker for the Nov. 4 races are Moonshine Memories (4-1) in the Juvenile Fillies, Bolt d'Oro (9-2) in the Juvenile, Unique Bella (7-2) in the Filly and Mare Sprint, Lady Eli (8-5) in the Filly and Mare Turf, Ulysses (3-1) in the Turf, Ribchester (2-1) in the Mile, Lady Aurelia (2-1) in the Turf Sprint, and Drefong is 7-2 to defend his title in the Sprint.
For the Nov. 3 races, Brad Free of DRF has made Stellar Wind the 3-1 favorite in the Distaff, Accelerate 3-1 in the Dirt Mile, Sioux Nation 4-1 in the Juvenile Turf, and Happily 7-2 in the Juvenile Fillies Turf.