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McKinzie the early favorite for Breeders' Cup Classic

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Arcadia (United States) (AFP)

The Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie was installed Monday as the early 3-1 favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita, where the $28 million racing extravaganza will unfold under the shadow of 36 horse deaths since December.

The $6 million Classic over 1 1/4 miles on the dirt track at Santa Anita on Saturday will cap a two-day, 14-race slate that features a raft of European challengers and Asian invaders from Japan and, in a Breeders' Cup first, South Korea.

McKinzie, a four-year-old son of Street Sense, won the Grade One Whitney and the Grade Two Alysheba this year.

After his runner-up finish in the Awesome Again Stakes in September, Baffert has opted to switch from jockey Mike Smith to Joel Rosario, who will pilot McKinzie from the eighth post on Saturday.

McKinzie put in his final workout Monday morning, with Baffert liking what he saw.

"I can relax now," Baffert said. "It was just enough. It was just perfect and he handled it well. He should come out running."

Code of Honor and Vino Rosso are expected to provide a tough challenge while Elate, trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Jose Ortiz will try to become just the second mare, after Zenyatta in 2009, to win the Classic.

The races on Friday and Saturday will mark the 10th time that Santa Anita has hosted the Breeders' Cup.

But the picturesque track nestled in the San Gabriel mountains northeast of Los Angeles has come under intense scrutiny this year with equine deaths reaching 36 through Sunday.

An outcry was unleashed as 30 horses had to be euthanized from December 26 to June, sparking calls from animal rights activists to halt racing at Santa Anita or even ban the sport in California.

California law enforcement authorities have instituted an investigation as have state racing officials and federal legislation to introduce a national commissioning body has been introduced.

Six more have since died, including two just this weekend during the track's Autumn meeting.

Baffert insisted that he didn't believe Santa Anita posed any special danger to his runners and that new regulations governing race-day medications and increased pre-race veterinary scrutiny had improved safety.

"I think it was like a wake-up moment for racing. We need to do a better job," Baffert said. "And I think trainers, everybody involved, I think we're being more conscientious than before and I think it's going to be a great Breeders' Cup."

US trainer Chad Brown, who saddles 9-5 early favorite Bricks and Mortar in the $4 million Turf over 1 1/2 miles, said he had tried to monitor the situation from his training base on the East Coast.

"I did have a lot of questions from clients throughout the summer and right into the fall here about our plans, individual horses, about my opinion on it," he said. "But ultimately we feel confident in Santa Anita's management, that the track will be safe.

"I support everything they've been doing to try to improve the situation."

- O'Brien seeks seventh Turf triumph -

In the Turf, Brown will be up against Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien, who sends Epsom Derby-winner Anthony Van Dyck with Ryan Moore in the irons out in search of O'Brien's seventh Turf win.

Van Dyck will break from the fifth post in the 12-horse field while Bricks and Mortar -- winner of his past six starts dating to 2018 drew the ninth post and with Irad Ortiz aboard will be testing the 1 1/2-mile distance for the first time.

There was a blow for O'Brien Monday when he announced that Magical, the four-year-old daughter of Galileo who has amassed more than $4 million in earnings, wouldn't make the trip after spiking a slight fever and would be retired.

O'Brien still boasts more than a dozen runners, including Prix du Moulin winner Circus Maximus who was made the early 3-1 favorite for the Mile on the turf track.

The $2 million Filly & Mare Turf will see Sistercharlie, trained by Brown, try to become the first back-to-back winner of the 1 1/4-mile race.

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