This place has long been a crucible for America's sense of her place in the world.
In 1777 George Washington fought the British in the battle of Monmouth, one of several engagements that made New Jersey "crossroads of the Revolution". On Saturday, his namesake instead bears the standard for a posse of raiders from the Old World. But the European challenge for the 24th Breeders' Cup is so small that some may consider it expressive of that perennial American quandary: does a great nation summon the world, or reach out to it?
A racecourse was first established here just after the Civil War. As President, Ulysses S Grant had a summer home nearby and would take a grandstand box for the season. The climax in 1872 was a match race that revived a good deal of bitterness between north and south. Southerners mortgaged their plantations to back their champion, Longfellow, against Harry Bassett, the local favourite and winner of 14 consecutive races. It was a rout, for Longfellow.
Though the flight and climate are both relatively kind, only nine European horses remain in contention on Saturday – fewer even than the 10 pioneers at Hollywood Park in 1984. Four of them, moreover, come from one stable. True, in part this reflects the present imbalance between Europe's racing superpowers. Godolphin have no runners on the big day (Discreet Cat contests one of the new races on Friday) while Peter Chapple-Hyam's season has ebbed with the health of his horses.
Fortunately for the Breeders' Cup, John Magnier and his partners in Coolmore Stud – with their extensive American interests – still ascribe critical significance to the occasion. Sure enough, the three biggest guns in the European arsenal are all aimed by Aidan O'Brien: Dylan Thomas (Turf), Excellent Art (Mile) and George Washington himself (the Classic).
Even so, the Americans cannot afford complacency in the "World Thoroughbred Championships". Ten years ago, 27 European horses flew to the Pacific Coast to run in abrupt heat at Hollywood Park. In equivalent terms, this time two in three are staying at home. And there are no runners from any other Continent.
So what do the Americans make of this? As a visitor to the White House wrote of Grant: there is "a puzzled pathos, as of a man with a problem before him of which he does not understand the terms". They can legitimately point to innovations, such as three new races on Friday, and guaranteed eligibility for big race winners. But the bottom line remains that the cost of entry – especially for horses not nominated in infancy – is savage, never mind loading a horse on to a plane.
Contrast the blossoming festivals of Hong Kong in December, and Dubai in the new year, with huge prizemoney and tempting subsidies for travel. These are rapidly diluting the prestige of the Breeders' Cup.
Understandably, few locals were sensing any such erosion yesterday morning as they watched Street Sense, the Kentucky Derby winner, warming up for perhaps the best Breeders' Cup Classic of all.
In the trees on the backstretch, the gold of sunrise was matched only by a few leaves, most clinging to green in the weird autumn warmth. But then that curiosity does not prompt much anxiety in these parts, either. Where is the fall? Where are the Europeans? Who cares? We got ourselves a great horserace.
Of course, the Americans might yet reproach the Europeans with a parochialism of their own. Next year the Breeders' Cup will be staged on a new, synthetic surface at Santa Anita, far more congenial to turf horses than dirt runners of the old school.
It is not too much to say that the spread of these tracks – safer, but resented by traditionalists here – could contain the seeds of destruction for many American pedigrees. Failure to seize this opportunity would certainly transfer any charge of decadence back to the Old World.
After all, the ambience of the Breeders' Cup remains as intoxicating as ever. Among the rustic, communal barns on the backstretch is all the banter and adventure of a circus. In the track kitchen, a sign admonishes: "Your mother does not work here. Please clean up after thyself."
The breakfast menu mysteriously includes "shit on a shingle". A ragged poster advertises a two-year-old gelding, "broke 30 days", yours for $4,500.
But at the quarantine barn all remains quiet. Henry Cecil is due in tonight, to supervise Passage Of Time's preparations for the Filly & Mare Turf, the one race that has attracted the Europeans in numbers. Her rivals include Simply Perfect, Timarwa and All My Loving.
Jamie Spencer will not be able to redress some difficult days for Ballydoyle in North America, instead riding for the stable at Doncaster on Saturday. Excellent Art, his mount all season, will be ridden by Johnny Murtagh, but the new partnership was given a ghastly draw yesterday.
If Murtagh can win from stall 13 of 14, on a very tight turf track, he will surpass anything he has achieved even during a magnificent year in Europe. Coral promptly eased Excellent Art to 4-1 from 3-1. On the wide outside, the horse will explore all the perils of isolationism.Reuse content