Anyone who came here for the first time yesterday morning gained an unusually literal sense of the fact that every racecourse is a theatre of illusion. For even when the dawn mist had burnt away – so that the horses pumping round the home turn were suddenly streaked by hot sunshine, their shoulders running like molten silver – the San Gabriel Mountains were nowhere to be seen. The curdling miasmas of the Los Angeles basin had washed one of the Turf's great panoramas entirely away.
It seemed fitting, then, to be talking to Patrick Biancone as the first crags began to suggest themselves to the eye, floating eerily above the stifled horizon. The mountains had never gone away, of course, and nor had one of the authentic lions of the racing world. It only seemed that way.
Biancone is back. Again. His CV is one of the most remarkable in Turf history, as extreme in accomplishment as in apparent disgrace. In January, the Frenchman resumed his career after its latest, most egregious interruption. In November 2007 he had begun a year's exile from the sport, following the discovery that summer of three vials of cobra venom in a fridge in his barn at Keeneland. As American racing wrestled against charges of moral and chemical contamination, a painkiller this exotic seemed to give the debate its "poster boy".
Biancone furiously protested his innocence – his vet was given a five-year ban – just as he had when suspended in Hong Kong, seven years previously, again for drug violations. Even when he gets in trouble, he can only do so flamboyantly. He volunteers himself for polygraph tests, despairs of his persecutors, persuasively exculpating himself as the outsider, as a perennial target. On home soil, he trained All Along (1983) and Sagace (1984) to win consecutive Arcs; and, in all his wanderings since, nothing has diminished the sense that here is a man flavoured by genius.
Sure enough, the two dozen juveniles he assembled for his comeback included a couple who have earned a role in the 26th Breeders' Cup here tomorrow. For the one he runs in the turf race, Zip Quik, Biancone would gladly settle for "a piece of the cake". But Pulsion, on the synthetic track, is another story. "I think he's going to win," Biancone says casually.
Even those who remain ambivalent about Biancone must acknowledge that he has an inspired eye for a horse. Pulsion, for instance, had little pedigree to recommend him when he appeared at a breeze-up sale – the lots are galloped a furlong in public before going through the ring – in Florida. "But he was just an amazing horse, you had to buy him," Biancone said. "He breezed well enough, but the main thing was that he galloped out unbelievable. He could have done another lap."
It is notoriously difficult for a horseman to articulate a matter of instinct to the layman, but at least Biancone can explain the difference in memorably vivid terms. "Any man can see that a woman is beautiful," he said. "But not everyone can also tell whether she will be good in bed."
At 57, all the passion remains, and all the belief. He refused the corrosion of bitterness. "To be successful, you must have a strong character anyway," he shrugged. "So long as you don't let it eat away inside you, you will be OK. You ever see this movie, The Perfect Storm? The captain of the boat says: 'If we can turn around, we'll be safe.' That's what I have done. You could not fight, because, just or unjust, everything was inside the rules. It's past.
"Most of the people I train for, they have been with me a very long time. When I got caught in the storm, I had client A and client B. When I came back, client A is behind me. He is a friend. Client B is not, so he is just a client. But he will come back, too. It will just take a bit longer. They pay us to win races, and as long as you are successful, they come. It is going to take time. But we made it to the Breeders' Cup anyway. In claiming races, I have a very bad record. But with errands like this, we have always done OK."
Only one thing frightened him, during his banishment, and that was doing nothing. He took up poker, and from a standing start discovered that it played to exactly the same strengths as his professional vocation. "I won a tournament in Vegas, and finished fourth in the Californian championship," he said proudly. "I don't play now, because it's exactly like training: you need to be able to see the cards from morning to night. But poker really saved me: the competition, the people. It's a very interesting game, but you cannot be an amateur."
To some, Biancone will always be impossible to read. To others, however, he can be read as a lyricist. And while racing sometimes appears to forgive too much, it has corresponding powers of redemption – whether from transgression or misfortune. Tomorrow, it could be Biancone, or Kieren Fallon; today, it could be Henry Cecil, who has big chances on the preliminary card with Midday and Father Time. Others to have travelled from Newmarket include Mastery, who beat Father Time in the St Leger and meets him again in the Marathon; and Rainbow View, who represents John Gosden in the Ladies' Classic. Cecil, who also has Twice Over in the big one tomorrow, says that Midday needed the run in France last time, following a break, and is talking optimistically about each of his runners.
Cecil, of course, is fighting illness; Fallon and Biancone have fought scandal. Some of their hopes for this meeting will doubtless prove illusory. But at least they are all here, claiming their place in some Mount Rushmore for the Turf. For while the crags of personality faded from view, they never crumbled away.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
One Of The Boys (3.40 Fontwell) Suggested he had more to offer over fences when rounding off his novice season with a win at Plumpton, and his new trainer is guaranteed to find out if this is so.
Quaker Parrot (6.20 Wolverhampton) Professional nursery type, showing a big heart when rallying last time but also likely to be suited by this sharp test, a wide draw the one caveat.
One to watch
Edgeworth (B G Powell) soon had too much to do at Newmarket the other day, dropped back to 7f, but a midfield surge suggested that he can win again over another furlong.
Where the money's going
Delegator is 5-1 from 13-2 with Paddy Power for the Breeders' Cup Mile tomorrow.