There was sentiment afoot last summer that Del Mar management should open its training facilities as soon as possible once the leaves began to turn, in an effort to give stables the option of early training over the Breeders' Cup landscape.
So they did. The track opened Monday, fully staffed with outriders, clockers, and emergency vehicles. The maintenance crew had the main course groomed like a Westminster poodle, while the quarantine barns were done up for the Europeans like a spread in Better Homes & Gardens.
There was everything but horses. Even as of Wednesday morning, when the 187 Breeders' Cup pre-entries were announced, backstretch barn cats and golf carts vastly outnumbered the handful of Thoroughbreds in residence. Tumbleweeds would not have looked out of place.
"I guess old habits die hard," said Craig Fravel, Breeders' Cup president and CEO. "But at least the place was ready for those who did arrive early this week."
There was a trickle of Euros scheduled to check in Wednesday evening, joining Breeders' Cup pre-entrants already bedded down from domestic trainers like Wesley Ward, Larry Rivelli, Dale Romans, and Jorge Navarro. A white-hot Tuesday afternoon gave way to a cooler Wednesday, with the hint of an onshore breeze delivering on the promise that climate would not be a factor as the championship events of Nov. 3 and 4 approached.
With so few signs of life on the scene, the distinctive Long Island stylings of trainer Chad Summers were easily identified as he circled the shed row with his sprint star, Mind Your Biscuits. The 4-year-old son of Posse is fairly easy to spot, with his California Chromish chestnut coat, his arrowhead star, and white hind anklets. But any uncertainty was answered by the inscription on his cooler, identifying the wearer as the winner of the 2017 Dubai Golden Shaheen.
The victory in the Middle East was a natural extension of the performance of Mind Your Biscuits in his only California appearance, last Dec. 26, when he won the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita. Sharp Azteca, the horse he beat that day, was munching hay in a nearby stall.
A winner last time out in the Kelso Handicap at Belmont, Sharp Azteca will be running in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, while Mind Your Biscuits will play to his strengths in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Last year at Santa Anita, Mind Your Biscuits finished third in the Sprint behind Drefong and Masochistic.
"He's grown up a lot since then," said Summers, whose family is part of the colt's ownership. "Looking more like a stallion now."
Without question, the Breeders' Cup Sprint will be the most important six furlongs ever run at Del Mar in a history that dates back to 1937. There have been some beauties, though, along the way, led by the track's signature Bing Crosby. First run in 1946, the Grade 1 Crosby features early runnings won by How Now and Viking Spirit under 128 pounds, as well as Eclipse sprint championship-enhancing performances from Chinook Pass, Lit de Justice, Kona Gold, Amazombie, and Points Offthebench.
The BC Sprint, to be run Nov. 4, will have to hit a high note if it wants to match the Crosby thriller of 2001, when reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint champ Kona Gold edged two-time Golden Shaheen winner Caller One in a race that left everyone weak in the knees.
Mind Your Biscuits will face a similar challenge from defending Sprint champ Drefong, as well as Santa Anita Sprint Championship winner Roy H. Summers paused in his work Wednesday to watch Roy H work at Santa Anita, via an iPhone transmission of a live XBTV feed.
It was a nice move, and Summers gave it a nod. But the trainer is more focused on making sure Mind Your Biscuits returns to the form of his win in the Belmont Sprint Championship last July, his first race after Dubai, and erasing any doubts raised by his dull performance in the Forego Stakes when sixth behind Drefong at Saratoga.
"He was 5-2 going into the Forego and 8-1 for the Breeders' Cup coming out, that's how quick people gave up on him," Summers noted.
In the past, Mind Your Biscuits had run well at quirky Saratoga, where last year he won the Amsterdam and finished second to Drefong in the King's Bishop.
"And he was doing fine when we first got to Saratoga this time," Summers said. "But we were in a barn where you could hear music playing until 2 o'clock in the morning, and he finally just got depressed. He'd hang out in the back of his stall, which isn't him at all. Usually, you have to bribe him with peppermints to get him into his stall, he likes being outside and looking around so much."
As if on cue, Mind Your Biscuits lifted his head and considered the sight of the racetrack and a horse and pony heading into the distance. He dropped his head, in reasonable anticipation of grass, but was greeted only by the sand spread generously between the Breeders' Cup barns.
"Yeah, he'd love to pick at some grass," Summers said. "They're not using the turf course right now. You think I could take him out there and maybe let him graze a little?"
For a horse like this, it's at least worth asking.