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Soaking up Santa Anita

ARCADIA, Calif. --- If there's any place I'd rather be than right here, right now, I can't think of it.

Right here is a Santa Anita Park and right now is a few hours past dawn on the day before the Breeders' Cup.

This is the crossroads of the thoroughbred racing world this week and I've just returned from the epicenter, an area called "Clockers' Corner" at the top of the home stretch of one of the most gorgeous race tracks in North America.

Stand at Clockers' Corner in the mornings this week and you'll see just about all the best race horses in the world come walking or galloping by for their daily exercise. And you know who they are because most are wearing nametags --- in the form of purple saddleclothes with their names big white letters.

I'll admit it. Even to me, a lifetlong horseplayer, many horses look alike. But on Breeders' Cup week, when you're looking for a potential champion to bet on, you're always looking for that special one or two, ones that, as horsemen say, "fill they eye" with their sheer physical appearance.

Just a second ago, it was a nicely muscled almost black (the official color is termed "dark bay or brown" 2-year-old filly that came walking by on the way home to her barn. (She's be wearing No. 7 in Friday's $1 million Juvenile Filles, post time 4:55 p.m.).

Wednesday's star, in my view, was Delightful Kiss, a magnificent gray gelding who will be No. 3 in the $500,000 Marathon (1:10 p.m.), the opener on Saturday's nine-race card.

I spotted him in the barn area, while I was walking to the track kitchen for breakfast. (Santa Anita has the best racetrack oatmeal in the sport). Angel Cordero Jr., the retired Hall of Fame jockey was also admiring him while talking with trainer Pete Anderson.

You almost can't turn around here without seeing a Hall of Fame jockey or trainer. Bobby Frankel was over by the little starting gate this morning schooling horses, Shug McGaughey has walked by me a half-dozen times, Richard Mandella came by a few minutes ago, Mike smith said hello while talking on his cell phone. D. Wayne Lukas is the guy in a cowboy hat.

And Wednesday night I saw Chris McCarron --- one of four jockeys (along with Johnny Longden, Bill Shoemaker and Laffit Pincay Jr.) whose is honored with a bronze bust by the walking ring --- at the National Turf Writers Association annual dinner.

I had one of those Southern California brushes with celebrity on the way to that dinner. I parked on a side street with parking meters. The man who parked behind me and I had trouble reading the little signs before we discovered we needed to pump some coins into the machines. I filled mine, and then I gave him a few coins for his.

We both were dressed for dinner and appeared headed to the same restaurant. I asked him is he was going to the Turf Writers' dinner and he said he was. So I extended my hand and introduced myself. He said, "Hi. I'm Tim Conway."

"I'm sorry," I said. "I didn't recognize you."

"That's OK," said the world famous comedian. "I didn't recognize you, either."

Conway, introduced at the dinner as a horseplayer and "long-suffering horse owner", had been at the track that afternoon enjoying the races.

Even an ordinary Wednesday afternoon at the races is a day to savor at Santa Anita. With the temperature in the 80s, the blue sky, the green grass, the palm trees, the flowers. It could even rival Fort Erie's claim to be the most beautiful track on the continent.

No matter where Breeders' Cup is held, the afternoons leading up to the big day turns into a sort of gathering of the clan for horseplayers. Wear a hometown track shirt or a baseball cap (mine is from Buffalo Raceway) and people invariably come up and ask if you know so-and-so and how is such-and-such a track doing and so on.

It's also a chance for vacationing fans who follow the game on TV simulcasts to see their favorites in person. On Wednesday, after Garrett Gomez --- the nation's top money-winning jockey --- walked by after winning a race, a man near me shouted "Hey Garrett,we love you in Nebraska, man."

Picking winners at Santa Anita in person is just as hard as picking them in the OTB parlors at home. But it just doesn't sting as much.

Before you kiss your $2 good-bye at Santa Anita you have watched the horses circle the lush walking ring before the statue of Seabiscuit, soaked up some California sunshine, picked up a tip (Richard Day from Toronto, brother of the trainer of Van Lear Rose --- No. 6 in the Juvenile Fillies told me they really like their horse) and marveled at the grandeur of the San Gabriel Mountains in the background.

There's no place else I'd rather be.

--- Bob Summers

         

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