Trainer Bob Baffert chases a fifth Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday, sending out early favorite Arabian Knight in the $6 million showpiece at Santa Anita, where two horse deaths have marred the build up to the $31 million racing extravaganza.
A 14-race programme, starting with five matchups for 2-year-olds on Friday, sees the Breeders' Cup return to the Santa Anita Racetrack outside Los Angeles for the 40th anniversary of the event.
Baffert said the $6 million Classic field offered a "good race top to bottom" despite late defections and injuries that included the death of Haskell Stakes winner Geaux Rocket Ride, who suffered a catastrophic broken right front leg during training and was euthanized on Wednesday.
Owners Pin Oak Stud sent the colt for surgery, but when he was unable to stand after the operation they accepted the recommendation of the medical team to euthanize him.
"His mind and his spirit never quit, but his body never recovered from surgery," Pin Oak Stud said on social media. "He fought hard and our team of vets tried everything they could."
The death of Geaux Rocket Ride -- trained by Richard Mandella and ridden by Mike Smith -- followed that of Practical Move, a Dirt Mile entrant who suffered a suspected cardiac arrest after a morning workout on Tuesday.
The deaths revived memories of the spate of equine fatalities at Santa Anita, where dozens of horses died in 2019, and at Churchill Downs in Kentucky earlier this year.
This year, all Breeders' Cup entrants have been subject to stringent health screening, and for the first time the event will be run under the anti-doping and medication requirements laid down by the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.
Belmont Stakes winner Arcangelo and Kentucky Derby winner Mage were both scratched from the Classic, Arcangelo with a left hind foot issue and Mage with a fever that prevented him from travelling to California.
The lightly raced Arabian Knight didn't contest the US Triple Crown, but he has impressed with three wins in four career starts -- including a victory in the Grade One Pacific Classic Stakes in September.
"He's healthy, he's working well," said Baffert, who has three runner-up finishes in the 1 1/4-mile Classic to go with his four wins. "There have been no hiccups."
Baffert's four Classic winners -- Bayern in 2014, American Pharaoh in 2015, Arrogate in 2016 and Authentic in 2020 -- all notched wire-to-wire victories.
The speedy Arabian Knight has done the same in all three of his wins.
"We always thought of him as a top-class horse," Baffert said. "You could see that as a yearling, which is why he cost us a pretty penny. Now he's finally getting into form where we're going to see the best of him."
FMQ Stables' Saudi Crown is also coming off a Grade One win. The Brad Cox-trained son of Always Dreaming led from gate to wire in the Pennsylvania Derby last month.
"Some good horses won't be running and in our case there's two less that we will not have to fend off," Cox said. "I'm not happy that they won't be there, but we're going to play the hand we were dealt and do the best we can."
- 'Caged lioness' -
The Classic field also features Japanese raider Ushba Tesoro. The son of Orfevre, trained by Noboru Takagi, will try to become the first horse to win the Dubai World Cup and the Classic in the same year.
Trainer Todd Pletcher, who saddles Bright Future and Dreamlike, called the Classic "a deep race, but to me, an open race."
A strong European contingent again looms in the turf races. Auguste Rodin, winner of the Epsom and Irish derbies, Ascot Champions Stakes winner King of Steel and brilliant 5-year-old Mosthadaf headline the field for the $4 million 1 1/2-mile Turf on Saturday.
Inspiral, the five-time Group One winner trained by John Gosden, headlines the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf.
Gosden said the Frankel daughter had handled the trip to California well.
"She's flown to France before, but this is the longest journey for her," Gosden said Wednesday. "She did get very bored in quarantine and was itching to get out. She's a little bit like a caged lioness, but she's fit and doing well."