It's Woodbine's turn to shine.
The Kentucky Derby, thoroughbred racing's biggest draw and most famous race, never moves from Louisville. But the Breeders' Cup, the sport's richest day, moves around like a carnival.
Today, after 12 years of rotating through the big American racing centers in Kentucky, California, Florida and New York, the Cup pitches its tents (and there are plenty of them) at Woodbine, the Ontario Jockey Club's jewel in the Toronto suburb of Etobicoke.
"This is the most exciting thing that's happened at Woodbine in 40 years," OJC president David Willmot said.
With dry weather, which is expected, and the absence of disruption from anti-government labor protesters, which is yet to be determined, the big day could approach Woodbine's attendance record of 40,137. That was set in 1973, when Queen Elizabeth II attended the Queen's Plate, Canada's most famous race.
All seats are sold out, but thousands of $15 general admission tickets -- which allow access to various non-seating areas, including the spacious grounds surrounding the huge walking ring and the temporary "Octoberfest" hall in the harness paddock building -- are available at the gate. Doors open at 9 a.m. and the first of three $100,000 preliminary races goes off at noon. Regardless of live attendance, the seven championship races, worth total purse money of $11 million, will be televised across the continent and -- with horses coming from Japan and Europe -- be followed widely around the racing world.
(Ch. 5's 5 1/2 -hour coverage starts at 12:30 p.m.; Ch. 2 begins at 1:30. The first Cup race goes off at 1:50. Wagering and viewing are available at OTB, Buffalo Raceway, Fort Erie Race Track, Batavia Downs and Finger Lakes Race Track.)
"This is the culmination of a long effort," said Ernie Samuel, a vice president of the OJC's board of trustees and owner of Sam-Son Farm, one of Canada's top racing stables. "We applied (to Breeders' Cup Ltd.) up front when the concept first came out (in 1983) and put together a high-powered solid team. We had the support of government and the city."
Samuel said Woodbine's attempt to land the Cup was greatly helped by the track's $17 million renovation two years ago which included construction of the 1 1/2 -mile E.P. Taylor Turf Course, a lush European-style grass course that surrounds the one-mile dirt track.
"Everybody who's seen it was highly impressed with it. It's a great natural turf course," Samuel said.
Two of the Cup races, the $1 million Mile and the $2 million Turf, at 1 1/2 miles, will be raced over the surface, named for Woodbine's late founder.
"The turf course is fantastic. It's as pretty a sight as you'll ever see in racing," said California-based trainer Dick Mandella, who runs horses in both the Turf and the $4 million Classic.
"This is going to be a terrific day, something we've looked forward to for a long time, especially myself, being a Canadian," said Hall of Fame jockey Sandy Hawley. The native of Oshawa, Ont., started his career at Fort Erie.
"I've been riding now for about 27 years and I know that every year I went out of town, whether it be Europe or North America, I always bragged about Woodbine. . . . What a beautiful race track we have, facilities-wise and the course itself. . . . It's great to see that people are going to be here first-hand to see what kind of a facility we really have," Hawley said.
Woodbine's day in the sun almost disappeared back in June when word spread that the Breeders' Cup activities would be one of the functions picketed in a "Days of Action" general strike and protest called in the Toronto area Friday and today by the Ontario Federation of Labour.
But after negotiations, which included settlement of a six-month lockout of OJC mutuel workers, the Cup was restored to Woodbine by the Kentucky-based organization which runs the show.
OFL leaders have promised that the weekend's activities would not involve the Cup, although planned activities include picketing of transit facilities and other government operations.
On the track, the main attraction is Cigar, the world's richest horse (lifetime earnings of more than $9.5 million) who is making either his last or second-last start in the Classic.
Owned by 74-year-old Allen E. Paulson, trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Jerry Bailey, the 6-year-old horse -- who won last year's Classic at Belmont Park -- came into international prominence this summer as he extended his win streak to 16 victories, which tied a modern-day mark set by 1948 Triple Crown winner Citation.
Cigar's skein was broken in August by the Mandella-trained Dare And Go, who is going to try again in today's race. Cigar was also beaten by a head in his most recent race at Belmont Park but the winner, Skip Away, is not running today.
Win or lose, Cigar has little to prove.
"We've already been beaten this year, but he's already done an awful lot over the past two years," Mott said. "Naturally I'd like to see him run well and go out on a good note. But if he would get beaten, I don't think it means he hasn't been a good horse."