The setting could scarcely be less like Newmarket, with the slender palms on the infield reaching up towards the hazy San Gabriel mountains. For John Gosden and Frankie Dettori, however, it felt just like home as Pounced got the European challenge off to a flying start at the Breeders' Cup last night.
They have been here before, after all. Not just last year – when they won the same race, the Juvenile Turf, with Donativum – but way back when days like these were the distant spur to young ambition. Gosden began his training career in California, three decades ago, while the teenaged Dettori would sneak through the back gates to ride work here, honing the sense of timing that has now brought his Breeders' Cup tally to nine.
Among those still riding, only Mike Smith has more with 12. It seems a very long time now since Dettori's horrendous performance – during and after the race – on Swain in the 1998 Breeders' Cup Classic, at Churchill Downs. And it was precisely that breadth of experience and achievement that induced Gosden to book Dettori for Pounced, at the expense of his stable jockey, Jimmy Fortune.
In some quarters, inevitably, this prompted squeamish expressions of indignation on Fortune's behalf. But it would be naïve to overlook Dettori's familiarity with this environment – whether in terms of its intensity, or the specific topography of Santa Anita. Last year, faced with an identical dilemma, Gosden made the same difficult phone call to Fortune, and Dettori rewarded him by winning not only on Donativum but also on Raven's Pass in the Classic itself.
And he certainly rode an impeccable race on Pounced, who had been fast-tracked from a maiden success straight into Group One company when second at Longchamp last month. Alert to the slow early pace, Dettori made the most of his handy draw and was snugly behind the leader on the rail as they reached the first turn. In contrast, the hopes of Ballydoyle had been extinguished already. Viscount Nelson broke very dozily, and when Johnny Murtagh did precious little about it he was soon detached in last place.
At the business end, meanwhile, Dettori found a convenient gap off the home bend and ran down Bridgetown at the furlong pole, winning by three-quarters of a length. "I had a box seat," Dettori said. "I was very pleased we got the split, and he fought really hard for me. He was very brave."
Two other Newmarket raiders, Awesome Act and Buzzword, acquitted themselves well in fourth and fifth, confirming how very congenial the hosts have become in their recent Breeders' Cup innovations. The new races in the series, along with successive meetings on synthetic surfaces here, have not so much levelled the playing field as tilted it in Europe's favour. And there is nobody better qualified to take advantage than Gosden, a perfect conduit between the two racing cultures that converge in this series.
He had the confidence of the local punters, too, as Pounced was backed down to 2-1 favourite. "It's fantastic to win this race for the second straight year," he said. "And to do it at Santa Anita, my second home. I wasn't surprised he was sent off favourite, because he looked good training here. And when people were asking me about him, I told them he was as good as the horse who ran in the race last year, and won it, so that was enough to make the betting short.
"He's an agile, athletic horse, with a great cruising speed. I was shocked by how slow the fractions were. I knew you wanted to be handy then, and he was in the position to get the split."
At no stage did the sole overseas raider in the Turf Sprint, Strike The Deal, raise the remotest hope of success, slow from the gate and slow through the race. In contrast California Flag was always blazing away in front under his teenage jockey, Joseph Talamo, and was never going to be caught once opening up off the turn.
Jeremy Noseda, trainer of Strike The Deal, came here as the solitary believer in the international calibre of European sprinters, and dared to take on the locals in the Sprint on the synthetic track – admittedly not quite the conveyor belt it is for dirt dashers.
He, too, had gone with Dettori for Fleeting Spirit, though the ejected pilot in this instance, Tom Queally, had come up with the perfect retort on Friday's preliminary card, winning the Filly and Mare Turf for Henry Cecil on Midday. But Fleeting Spirit could never get into a race that went to a dramatic four-way photo, Dancing In Silks just getting his nose in front.