The $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita (GI), as a Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” event, guarantees the winner a berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) over the track in four months, so to say the 1 1/4-mile event holds implications for the first Saturday in November is an understatement.
Eight are expected to go to the gate, including last year’s winner, two well-traveled millionaires and a certified turf specialist who survived a scary brush with death. The Southern California heat isn’t expected to let up before Saturday and the afternoon high is expected to reach the upper 90s. The Gold Cup has been carded as the day’s ninth race with a post time of 5:30 p.m. PDT.
The Gold Cup at Santa Anita was once known as the Hollywood Gold Cup and was first run in 1938 across town at the now defunct Hollywood Park. The fabled Seabiscuit emerged the winner of that first contest and, since that summer day 78 years ago, the list of winners has become a “who’s who” of American racing and includes legendary names like Noor, Citation, Two Lea, Swaps, Round Table, Gallant Man, Native Diver, Ack Ack, Ancient Title, Affirmed, Ferdinand, Blushing John, Best Pal, Cigar, Skip Away, Real Quiet, Lava Man and Game on Dude.
This year, none of the runners has reached the same legendary status just yet, but that’s not to say some aren’t capable, especially in a year where the best of the division are either in the East, in the barn or in the breeding shed.
Terabilla Farms’ Melatonin ran the race of his life to win the Santa Anita Handicap (GI) in early March and while the effort produced his first win in Grade I company, the gelded son of Kodiak Kowboy actually has never run a bad race. Until this year he’d been competing at sprint distances — as was predicted by his pedigree — with only moderate success, but as soon as trainer David Hofmans stretched him out around two turns he blossomed, winning a 1 1/16-mile allowance test by 3 3/4 lengths before his 4 1/4-length Big ‘Cap score. He returns to his favorite track after a runner-up finish in the Oaklawn Handicap (GI) in April and has been training well over the surface since, including a pair of black-letter works.
He’s run well off a slight break before and is certainly in capable hands. And while his last two races saw him setting the pace and then battling for the lead in the early going, he doesn’t necessarily need to be on the engine and could just sit off any pace under jockey Joe Talamo. He won’t be the favorite, thanks to the presence of Hopportunity, so he may offer some value and holds a legitimate shot to reach the winner’s circle.
If Pegram, Watson and Weitman’s Hoppertunity had a definition next to his name in the mythical horse racing dictionary it would probably simply read “consistent.” While he’s not a a regular winner, he always shows up and owns a nice record of 15 in-the-money finishes from 19 career starts and earnings of nearly $3 million. He hasn’t won in three previous starts at the distance, but was just a nose behind Hard Aces at the wire in last year’s Gold Cup. After a brief rest following his third-place finish, beaten four lengths by division leader California Chrome in the March 26 Dubai World Cup (GI), he has been back on the work tab and training steadily to return. If the five-year-old son of Any Given Saturday shows up with his best, he will be difficult to beat. He’s the lukewarm 3-1 early morning line favorite, meaning the oddsmaker thinks he’s vulnerable, but five-time winning trainer Bob Baffert knows what he’s doing when it comes to prepping a horse for this race. Hall of Famer Mike Smith will be back aboard after a five-race break.
Second Summer was once a mediocre turf runner, but since being switched to the dirt he’s turned in some exceptional performances, including a one-length score in the Californian Stakes (GII) last time out. He’s riding a three-race win skein for trainer Pete Eurton and, though he defeated a couple of his Gold Cup rivals last out, he certainly steps up against tougher company in here. The gelded son of Summer Bird is absolutely bred to handle his first test at the classic distance and is improving with each start, but will absolutely need to keep improving to have a shot at getting his photo taken with regular jockey Mario Gutierrez when all is said and done.
Hard Aces, a six-year-old son of Hard Spun, won this race in thrilling fashion by a nose a year ago but has failed to reach the winner’s circle in eight starts since. He’s always a good work horse and hasn’t ever missed a beat, so he’s got to have his connections — owner Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler — scratching their heads as to what is going on. They know he has talent, they know his has pedigree and they know with his best he can run with the best. Unfortunately because he’s not shown much it’s hard to imagine he’d beat the top runners in here, but his second in the Californian to Second Summer last time out looked a whole lot more like the Hard Aces of old. Local hot jockey Santiago Gonzalez will be aboard for the first time.
We can always count on Imperative’s connections to show up and dance just about every big dance. The exceptionally well-bred son of Bernardini hasn’t won a race in more than two years, but he has picked up four seconds and a couple of thirds in tough company since. He’s never won at Santa Anita or at the distance so there would need to be something glaringly wrong about the top runners to think he’d be a solid win choice, but he’s done nothing if not proven he’s a must-use in any exotics picture.
Lieutenant Colonel is also showing improvement since arriving in trainer Jerry Hollendorfer’s barn late last year. The gelded son of Colonel John has taken to Santa Anita, winning twice, and is being given the acid test today, but we should all know that any runner trained by this Hall of Famer deserves an extra long look before heading to the windows.
Bal a Bali is a somewhat confusing entrant in here. A Brazilian Horse of the Year, he was purchased for a North American campaign in 2014 by the partnership of Fox Hill Farm and Siena farm, before subsequently (and successfully) battling a life-threatening case of laminitis. He returned to action to win a grassy Grade III and finished well in several other black-type events, showing us all he’s certainly got a lot of heart. Doubting a Hall of Fame trainer like Richard Mandella isn’t the wisest thing for any horseplayer, especially at the Grade I level, so it’s safe to think they know way more than we do by simply looking at his running lines and numbers on paper and won’t send out an overmatched horse.
Win the Space has one glaring positive — Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens. However, this expensive son of Pulpit has a lot of catching up to do to be considered at top contender in this event.
The views and opinions expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily state or reflect those of US Racing.
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