ARCADIA - Section U, row 23 of the Santa Anita Park grandstand is empty on the average day at the races. But the Saturday was no average day. It was the Breeders' Cup.
So thoroughbred-racing fans Robert and Sylvia Mauricio, who live in Seal Beach, and Robert's brother Bill Mauricio, who came in from Texas for the occasion, happily paid $75 each for seats in the uppermost corner of the old grandstand.
"The Breeders' Cup is the best horses in the world," said Robert Mauricio, a 56-year-old plant manager, explaining his enthusiasm.
He added with a grin: "The gambling has something to do with it, too."
Horse racing enjoyed a day in the sun Saturday when 55,123 fans streamed into Santa Anita's stands and infield for the climactic second day of the 28th Breeders' Cup, the sport's annual North American championship event.
The attendance topped Friday's by more than 20,000, but was slightly smaller than those for the Saturday programs when the Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009.
The crowd watched nine Breeders' Cup races, including an upset victory by Fort Larned in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic and a sensational win by Wise Dan in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Mile that left the latter as the likely Horse of the Year for 2012.
Other highlights: A hard-fought victory by 2-year-old Shanghai Bobby in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile that made that colt the very early favorite to win the 2013 Kentucky Derby, and made jockey Rosie Napravnik the second woman to ride a Breeders' Cup winner. And a come-from-behind victory in the $1 million Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint by Mizdirection, whose principle owner is sports talk radio star Jim Rome.
There won't be a day at the races like this in Southern California until next year, when the Breeders' Cup is held at Santa Anita again.
"This is the one you wait for," Bill Mauricio, a postal service employee in San Antonio, said as he looked out from his seat, about a quarter-mile from the finish line, at the colorful scene at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Denise and Steve Vocke and their 15-year-old daughter Cameron arrived two hours before the 10:05 a.m. first race to buy $15 general-admission tickets and plant folding chairs behind the trackside rail, mere yards from the finish.
The Vockes, residents of Charlotte, N.C., also went to last year's Breeders' Cup in Louisville, Ky., indulging Cameron's interest in horses.
"It's the championship," said Cameron, smiling through braces.
Funded in part by fees paid by thoroughbred breeders when their horses are weanlings, the Breeders' Cup rewards winning horse owners, trainers and jockeys with more than $25 million in purses, making it the richest event in U.S. sports.
Results of the Breeders' Cup's 15 races - separate showcases for horses of different sexes, age groups and racing specialties - don't automatically crown year-end champions. But they tend to influence championship voters more than any other races.
This was the sixth time the Breeders' Cup was held at Santa Anita. It has also been held three times at Hollywood Park, in Inglewood, including the event's debut in 1984.
"We got the perfect weather we ordered," Arcadia Mayor Bob Harbricht said as he walked to the turf club to watch the races on a 77-degree day. "It's great to see 60,000 people here. Of course we'd love to have the Breeders' Cup here in Arcadia every year.
While there were many serious fans carrying copies of the Daily Racing Form, squinting at horses' past-performance charts printed out from the Internet, or scouting horses' appearances in the saddling paddock, most of the crowd seemed to be here for a party. Fancy hats and suits were legion. Food and liquor concessions included eight sushi bars.
Horse racing in the United States is thought to be well past its glory days, which stretched from the 1930s, when Seabiscuit was the star at Santa Anita, to the 1970s, when Secretariat and two others swept the Triple Crown.
But Saturday felt like a new glory day.
"The Breeders' Cup is the World Series or the Super Bowl of horse racing," said Tom Quigley, owner-publisher of The Horseplayer magazine, who serves as Santa Anita's "VIP player concierge," helping the track to cultivate big-money gamblers.
"Hopefully people like it so much they'll come back to Santa Anita on a regular basis.That's what we need."