ARCADIA, Calif. (FOX 11 / CNS) - For an unprecedented ninth time, Santa Anita Park will host some of the world's best thoroughbred race horses -- including 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome as well as a match-up between three female champions this weekend -- as the Breeders' Cup World Championships begins Friday at the Arcadia race track.
Fans will have to wait until the last race of the day Saturday for the main attraction, California Chrome, who has won all six of his starts this year and is expected to go off as the favorite in the $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Friday's marquee race will feature the brilliant 3-year-old filly Songbird, who is undefeated in 11 starts and has beaten all of her opponents with ease so far. She will be taking on older fillies and mares for the first time in what some are calling the most competitive field ever for the $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Songbird's rivals include the battle-tested 6-year-old mare Beholder, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in 2012 and the Breeders' Cup Distaff in 2013, and the 4-year-old filly Stellar Wind, who has narrowly beaten Beholder the last two times they faced off at Santa Anita and Del Mar.
All three won Eclipse Award titles for their age division last year, and they are the top three morning line choices, with Songbird favored at 6-5 over Beholder and Stellar Wind, who were each made 5-2 on the morning line.
Also in the eight-horse field are Shuvee Handicap winner Curalina, Apple Blossom victor Forever Unbridled, Spinster winner I'm a Chatterbox, Fairgrounds Oaks winner Land Over Sea and the Argentinian mare Corona Del Inca.
"You've never seen this many (Eclipse Award winners) in one race. You look at the jockeys (Mike Smith on Songbird and Gary Stevens on Beholder) -- two Hall of Fame jockeys -- and one (Victor Espinoza) that will for sure be in the Hall of Fame," said Stellar Wind's trainer, John Sadler. "... It's just quality-laden up and down the whole field."
Beholder's jockey said Songbird "hasn't faced anything like Stellar Wind or Beholder."
"This on paper the best Distaff I've ridden in," Stevens said. "I don't want to take anything away from years past but I have said that Beholder is the best race horse that I've ever ridden."
He said that he's run the race many times in his head with countless scenarios but that "they all have a happy ending."
Songbird's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, said his filly has grown stronger and matured since her 2-year-old season.
"We're going to go over and put the saddle on her on race day and see what we can do," he said.
Last year's champion male sprinter Runhappy is set to try some extra distance in the Dirt Mile, in which he will face eight rivals, including Southern California-based Midnight Storm and Oklahoma Derby winner Texas Chrome, who are each unbeaten in their last three starts.
But the physically imposing Dortmund -- who has lost his last three starts to California Chrome -- is the 6-5 morning line favorite, with Runhappy at 3-1 and Pennsylvania Derby runner-up Gun Runner at 9-2.
A full field of 14 is expected in both the Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Juvenile Turf, which will each have a contingent of horses that have been flown from Europe and undergone a quarantine period before being allowed to venture onto the track.
East Coast invader Oscar Performance is the 4-1 morning line favorite for the $1 million Juvenile Turf, while British shipper Roly Poly is the 4-1 morning line favorite for the $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf.
Some of California Chrome's fans may be cheering for his 2-year-old sister, R Sunday Surprise, who is set to race in the $200,000 Golden State Juvenile Fillies Stakes in the race before the Breeders' Cup races begin. She's raced four times and her best finishes were a pair of third-places, with her morning-line odds at 12-1.
Bettors won't be getting those kind of odds on her big brother, a hugely popular 5-year-old California-bred who is set to make his second appearance in the Breeders' Cup Classic at morning-line odds of even money.
California Chrome finished third in the Classic when it was last run at Santa Anita in 2014, but his trainer, Art Sherman, said the chestnut horse has grown even bigger and stronger since then. "I couldn't be more pleased the way he's coming into this race," the 79-year-old trainer said this week. "I can't tell you what a thrill it's been for me, especially the last two races he won so easy (the Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Oct. 1 and the Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 20)."
Sherman said he's "really happy" the Breeders' Cup returned this year to Santa Anita, noting that California Chrome has won five graded stakes at the track and "loves it here."
California Chrome's rivals will include Santa Anita Handicap winner Melatonin, who has four wins in four starts at Santa Anita, and Arrogate, a lightly raced 3-year-old colt who has two wins in two starts at Santa Anita and broke a track record while winning the Travers at Saratoga this summer.
Arrogate will go up against his stablemate Hoppertunity, who won the San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita in February. Both are conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has trained the last two Breeders' Cup winners, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah last year at Keeneland and Bayern at Santa Anita two years ago.
Keen Ice -- who handed American Pharoah one of only two defeats in his career -- will return to the Breeders' Cup for the second consecutive year.
Other entrants include Woodward winner Shaman Ghost and longshots Win the Space and War Story.
One of the sentimental favorites for the weekend is likely to be Lady Eli, the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf champion who suffered a potentially life-threatening hoof condition after she stepped on a nail following her victory in the Belmont Oaks Invitational in July 2015. She's making her third start this year and is the 5-2 morning line favorite in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf.
Other Breeders' Cup races set for Saturday are the $4 million Turf; the Mile, Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, which each have a purse of $2 million, the $1.5 million Sprint and the Filly & Mare Sprint and Turf Sprint for $1 million each.
The weekend's events also include the first Breeders' Cup Legends Cavalcade, which is expected to give fans an opportunity to meet jockeys including California Chrome's rider, Victor Espinoza, and the horse's trainer.
John Shirreffs, who trained the legendary race mare Zenyatta to victory in the 2009 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, is also expected to be on hand.
Musical performances are scheduled from such acts as Boys II Men, Ozomatli, "The Voice" winner Alisan Porter and country singer Tyler Rich.
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