The Best Thing About the 2016 Breeders’ Cup

The Swiss watch brand Longines invited me to spend Saturday at the races

I don’t often get excited about sporting events, but on Saturday afternoon, my boyfriend, Jim, and I had the opportunity to attend one of the most prestigious events in the equestrian world—and I’m still grinning about it.

The Swiss watch brand Longines invited us to the 33rd running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park, often called the most beautiful racetrack in the world thanks to its idyllic Southern California setting. Against the spectacular backdrop of the San Gabriel Mountains, we watched Arrogate, a 3-year-old owned by the Saudi royal family, beat California Chrome, the legendary thoroughbred considered by many to be the best—and most beloved—horse in the world.

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Jockey Mike Smith and Arrogate cross the finish line to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Longines/AP Images)

As the official watch and timekeeper of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and the Triple Crown, Longines is a familiar name to fans of horse racing (it appears on the clocks ticking down each race), but to watch enthusiasts and collectors, the brand’s longtime association with equine sports may come as a surprise. It certainly did to me when I sat down, between races, with Juan-Carlos Capelli, Longines’ vice president and head of international marketing, and he schooled me on the brand’s 140-year-long relationship with horse racing.

“Our first association with sport was in 1878, when we produced a chronograph, and in 1881 we were the timekeeper of the racetrack in New York,” Capelli told me. “We are still the partner of the racetrack in Belmont [Park].”

I thought I knew Longines—a midpriced Swatch Group brand founded in 1832 in the Swiss village of Saint-Imier—but this authentic slice of its history had eluded me. Sure, I knew the brand sponsored some horse events here and there (just this year, they invited me to join them at the Kentucky Derby). But after watching the Breeders’ Cup in the brand’s fancy suite—where the mouthwatering buffet included a tower of crab legs and shrimp as well as a giant can of plump and delicious (and green!) Russian caviar—I learned that Hermès and Gucci, two watch brands with equally important equestrian tie-ins, have nothing on Longines when it comes to the depth and length of its involvement with horses.

In addition to all the major events on the horse racing calendar (including the Belmont Stakes, the Preakness, and, of course, the Derby), the brand sponsors a slew of global events in horse jumping, endurance, dressage, and eventing (not to mention a string of competitions in gymnastics, archery, and, from October to April, alpine skiing, which takes place nearly every weekend).

But horse racing is Longines’ oldest and, judging from what I experienced on Saturday, truest love. Once I got used to the pacing of the day (there are about 45 minutes of downtime between each of the dozen races), I settled into my seat and admired the fashions. My favorite part of the whole experience—besides the few seconds in every race when all the spectators in the stadium (which sold out for Saturday) stood on their feet and cheered the horses down the homestretch—was the crazy parade of over-the-top hats.

The ladies of Santa Anita Park take their headwear very seriously. The most popular hat style seemed to be a small profusion of floral sprigs fastened to something like a headband (see the photo of actress Elizabeth Banks below for a good example). But plenty of women upped their millinery game with eye-catching and extremely large bonnets brimming with colorful feathers and florals. One memorable woman wore a gigantic yellow number that looked like an ode to Carmen Miranda at Carnival, its profusion of feathers so dramatic that I could spot her, without binoculars, from over 50 yards away. It was all just so fabulous. Especially the fashion show, aka the Longines Prize of Elegance, where Capelli awarded timepieces to the most elegant man and woman in the park, C. Michael Woodlee, a nattily dressed dandy from Long Beach, Calif., and Chelsea Mesa, an attorney from Los Angeles.

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Juan-Carlos Capelli, left, Longines’ vice president and head of international marketing, and celebrity stylist Carson Kressley, right, pose with Longines Prize of Elegance contest winners C. Michael Woodlee, of Long Beach, Calif., and Chelsea Mesa, of Los Angeles (photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Longines/AP Images)

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Actress Elizabeth Banks at the Breeders’ Cup Classic (photo by Diane Bondareff/Invision for Longines/AP Images)

Jim and I left shortly after Arrogate edged out California Chrome for the win, giddy over our picture-perfect day at the races.

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That’s me and Jim, wearing our race-day best.