Weekend Stakes Preview

Effinex chases American Pharoah home in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Classic

Effinex chases American Pharoah home in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic

An amazing card featuring wall-to-wall stakes action is on tap at Santa Anita Saturday, led by the featured 79th running of the Santa Anita Handicap (GI). The “Big ‘Cap” owns the distinction of being known as the first “Hundred Grander” for offering a purse of at least $100,000 beginning in the late 1930s. It’s worth $1 million this year and has drawn a strong field of older runners who will race the 1 1/4 miles over the Southern California oval’s main track.

Also, three-year-olds on the Triple Crown trail will face off in the San Felipe Stakes (GIII), the undercard feature, while older turf horses with eyes on the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GIT) prize in November will share the spotlight on Saturday.

Santa Anita Handicap

Santa Anita Handicap Report Card

Though the days of true handicap racing seem to have gone the way of the Dodo bird, serious props go out to the few tracks who do their best to preserve history and offer big purses for the best older horses willing to carry weight and earn a position among the best in the older male division. While many associations are converting to the ranks of conditioned stakes and weight-for-age exhibitions, tracks like Gulfstream Park, Oaklawn, Churchill Downs and especially Santa Anita maintain their dedication to history and continue to offer rich handicap events.

At one time, weight was considered the “great equalizer” in pitting good horses against better horses and settling any debate as to who was the best older handicap runner. The better horses carried heavy imposts like badges of honor while the outsiders willingly toted less lead in their saddle pads, eyeing an upset and a spot in the history books. Horsemen were also true sportsmen and took pride in the weight their horses carried to victory.

By the late ‘80s and the days of Tex Sutton and cross-country plane trips in a day, the concept of a true handicap had lost its luster. Trainers with top stars assigned heavy imposts would just refuse to run and instead searched for other races at other tracks where their horses’ imposts would likely be substantially less and, therefore, give them a better chance to win. Too much weight earned a trip to another race in another city and, before long, handicaps had five-horse fields with top weights lower than most overnight races.

Racing secretaries soon took heed of trainers’ threats to ship, weighting horses less and less as the years progressed — all in an attempt to keep the superstars at home and the fans coming out to see them.

Despite it all, the Big’ Cap has endured and has maintained its position as a handicap’s handicap. The purse was boosted to seven figures years ago (though it has dipped a time or two in harder economic times) and has successfully competed with the growing attraction in the Middle East that is the Dubai World Cup, whose purse has grown and grown to the status it currently carries as the world’s richest horse race contested just three weeks later.

John Henry (outside) edges Perrault in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap

John Henry (outside) edges Perrault in the 1982 Santa Anita Handicap

Since its inception in 1935, during Santa Anita’s inaugural season, the Big ‘Cap boasts an impressive list of winners. The legendary Seabiscuit captured the 1940 renewal after falling just short in his two previous attempts. Round Table, Prove It, Lucky Debonair, Ack Ack, Triple Bend, Affirmed, Spectacular Bid, Broad Brush, Alysheba, Best Pal, Free House and Shared Belief are just some of the other names to have reached the storied winner’s circle. But perhaps the best known victors are two-time heroes John Henry, Milwaukee Brew and Lava Man, as well as three-time winner Game On Dude.

This year, a field of nine is expected to face the starter and attempt to leave a mark on handicap history, led by 123-pound highweight and early 2-1 favorite Effinex, who was last seen winning the Nov. 27 Clark Handicap (GII) at Churchill Downs. Before that, the Jimmy Jerkens-trained son of Mineshaft was a good second to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Keeneland. He’s a seasoned handicap campaigner already at age five, having also won the Suburban Handicap (GII) last year, and he’s been training well since shipping to California 10 days ago from his winter base of Palm Meadows in Florida. Hall of Famer Mike Smith will be aboard looking to establish a record of four Big ‘Cap wins, including the last three in a row.

General A Rod was a candidate on the 2014 Triple Crown Trail and even started in all three races, though he didn’t manage to make any sort of an impact. He was switched to trainer Todd Pletcher’s care 14 months ago, and, though he’s only raced sporadically since, he has posted a non-graded stakes win and an impressive 7 1/2-length allowance score six weeks ago at Gulfstream. He’ll tote 116 pounds, seven less than the favorite, and will carry top jockey Rafael Bejarano, who was aboard Heatseeker for a Big ‘Cap victory in 2008.

This year, veteran Imperative makes his 30th career start and though he’s never won over the Santa Anita track he calls home, the former claimer owns a three-race string of second-place finishes to some pretty good horses heading into Saturday’s feature, including probable Dubai World Cup favorite California Chrome in the San Pasqual (GII) two back. Now trained by Richard Baltas, the 6-year-old son of Bernardini was eighth in this event a year ago and will be looking to better that finish under new jockey Santiago Gonzalez. He will carry 120 pounds, just three fewer than Effinex.

The rain expected in Southern California on Friday should clear out by post time on Saturday, with sunny skies and a high of 70 forecasted for the day. The race has been carded as the 10th of the day and is expected to leave the gate at 6:00 p.m. EST.

San Felipe Stakes

San Felipe Report Card

The names of seven sophomores were dropped into the Santa Anita entry box for Saturday’s 80th running of the San Felipe Stakes (GII), a critical California prep for the Kentucky Derby that offers 50 coveted points to the winner. Aside from champion Nyquist, who will contest the Florida Derby (GI) at Gulfstream in three weeks, runners considered to be the best of the Southern California Triple Crown contenders will race the 1 1 1/16 miles over Santa Anita’s main track.

The San Felipe is the last stop before the April 9 Santa Anita Derby (GI), the signature prep and final decision-maker for the Southern California-based runners with Derby aspirations. The connections of all of the San Felipe runners are no doubt looking for a strong enough showing to turn up in the 1 1/8-mile main event for 3-year-olds in three weeks’ time.

Derby hero and 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome took home top honors in the San Felipe two years ago and is a member of an elite club of winners that includes fellow classic winners and/or Horses of the Year Determine, Sunday Silence, Fusaichi Pegasus, Best Pal and Triple Crown winner Affirmed. On the California road to the first Saturday in May, the San Felipe clearly is a pivotal pit stop.

Mor Spirit rallies late to win the 2016 Robert B. Lewis

Mor Spirit rallies late to win the 2016 Robert B. Lewis

Michael Lund Petersen’s Mor Spirit is coming off an impressive score in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (GIII) last out and, though the margin of victory seems short for the effort, he won with authority. With the victory he also was rightfully labeled as the leading Derby contender remaining at Santa Anita.

Mor Spirit’s trainer/jockey combo of Bob Baffert and Gary Stevens have teamed up for classic-winning success before with Derby and Preakness Stakes (GI) winner Silver Charm, Preakness and Belmont Stakes (GI) hero Point Given and a slew of other good horses over the last two decades, so he’s in capable and knowing hands with his Hall of Fame team. Also, Baffert will be seeking his fifth San Felipe win and Stevens will attempt to ride his third.

The $650,000 son of Eskendereya has proved to be a quirky horse in the mornings and was the victim of a very strange aborted workout two weeks ago, showing no interest and causing Stevens to pull him up to be safe rather than sorry. Baffert explained a set of earplugs had gone awry and Mor Spirit checked out fine and he proved it with a nice six-furlong drill in 1:12 1/5 as his final serious prep for the race last week.

The colt has won three of his five career starts, including the Bob Lewis and Los Alamitos Futurity (GI), and has posted a good second to a very good horse over the Churchill Downs main track in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (GII) late last year. He’s got a good running style to compliment a quick pace likely to be set in front of him and will most likely bide his time and wait until the top of the stretch to make his winning move. He’ll be heavily bet, but he’ll also be a legitimate favorite.

Affirmed winning the Belmont Stakes

Affirmed (right) won the San Felipe Stakes en route to sweeping the Triple Crown (photo via tomreeder.wordpress.com)

California-bred Smokey Image carries his six-race undefeated record into the San Felipe and will most certainly face the toughest field of his career. He’s so far enjoyed beating up on restricted state-bred rivals, but has found a good spot to attempt graded stakes company for the first time, especially off his 8 1/2-length romp in the California Cup Derby last out.

The chestnut son of Southern Image is trained by Carla Gaines, who took over conditioning duties at the end of last year, and will be ridden again by Hall of Fame finalist Victor Espinoza and could easily be found setting sail for the lead from the break or allowing the speed to go right in front of him and wait for it to back up to him to make his move. He will offer some more wagering value than the favorite in his acid test, but is also showing top form at the right time.

Exaggerator has been knocking on the door of the elite sophomore party and seemed like an invited guest after winning the Saratoga Special (GII) and Delta Jackpot (GIII) last year, but he seems to have stalled a bit in 2016. The Keith Desormeaux-trained son of Curlin ran a hard-fought second to Nyquist in the San Vicente Stakes (GII) last out, which wasn’t a surprise but also may have served as a top prep for the San Felipe. Desormeaux’s brother, Hall of Famer Kent, has won the Derby three times (Big Brown, Fusaichi Pegasus, Real Quiet) and will be in the irons once again.

Baffert also sends out Cupid, a $900,000 son of Tapit, off his 5 1/2-length maiden score last out. And Danzig Candy, a winner of his last two by a combined eight lengths, will be saddled by veteran California trainer Cliff Sise Jr. in what can be considered his toughest career test to date. If the favorite falters it could be anyone’s race.

Carded as the seventh, post time for the San Felipe is 4:30 p.m. EST.

Kilroe Mile

Kilroe Mile Report Card

Seven will head to the gate for the 58th running of the Frank E. Kilroe Mile, named for legendary racing secretary/director of racing Jimmy Kilroe, and it has been carded as the day’s sixth, with a post time set for 5:30 p.m. EST.

Golden Pegasus Racing and Earle Mack, LLC’s Bolo enters the grassy one-mile test off an impressive score in the Arcadia Stakes (GIIT) three weeks ago in what was his first start in six months. The four-year-old son of Temple City has won four of nine career starts for trainer Carla Gaines and will have Mike Smith, who rode him to a pair of wins as a juvenile, back aboard in the Kilroe. The long-term goal for the colt is the Breeders’ Cup Mile (GIT) over the Santa Anita lawn in November.

Brazilian-bred Bal a Bali heads postward for trainer Richard Mandella and will have young, top turf rider Flavien Prat aboard. He’s coming off a third-place finish in the San Gabriel Stakes (GIIT) on Jan. 2 and has been training well since. Overall, the Fox Hill Farm and Siena Farm color bearer has won six of nine races on the turf at a mile and 13 of his 18 career starts overall. He is another with an eye toward Racing’s Championship Day.

Trainer Dan Hendricks will send out Sareen Family Trust’s two-time Grade II winner Om off a strong second to Bolo in the Arcadia Stakes last out. The Kentucky-bred son of Munnings is turning into a one-mile turf specialist, having won two of his three career starts at the distance and has won three of his four career starts over Santa Anita’s lawn.

San Carlos

San Carlos Report Card

Eight speedsters will stretch out to the longer sprint distance of seven furlongs in the ninth race of the day, the 79th running of the San Carlos Stakes (GII). Some of the more prominent names set to run include Kobe’s Back, San Onofre, Calculator and Wild Dude. The one-turn event will break from the gate at 7:00 p.m. EST.

Tampa Bay Derby

Tampa Bay Derby Report Card

Grade I winner Brody’s Cause makes his much-anticipated seasonal debut in the $350,000 Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby (GII) at Tampa Bay Downs and will face a field of nine other three-year-olds with Derby aspirations. The son of Giant’s Causeway, who won the Breeders’ Futurity (GI) at Keeneland last year, hasn’t raced since finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI), but has been training well for this first start of 2016.

Some good horses have won the Tampa Bay Derby, but none as notable as 2007 Derby hero Street Sense. Though, overall, Tampa’s signature event hasn’t made a huge impact on the Triple Crown series so far outside of that, it has built momentum as a legitimate spot to earn Derby points and, this year, the winner will receive 50, virtually assuring a coveted spot in the starting gate under the Twin Spires on the first Saturday in May.

Trainer Dale Romans shipped the Albaugh Family Stable-owned Brody’s Cause into Tampa Bay Downs for his final preparations a couple weeks ago and he rewarded the conditioner’s faith with a nice half-mile drill in :48 2/5 last week after training forwardly at Gulfstream all winter. The stone-cold closer will most likely get the pace in front of him that he likes to run at late and with a clean trip under jockey Corey Lanerie is a good — albeit valueless — bet to reach the wire first.

Well-bred Destin returns off a strong victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (GIII) last out over the Tampa main track and sports some solid connections in sire Giant’s Causeway, dam Dream of Summer, owner Twin Creeks Racing, trainer Todd Pletcher and jockey Javier Castellano. He showed serious maturity in winning the Sam F. Davis, creeping between rivals and drawing clear in the stretch to win, and has turned in a pair of impressive works at Palm Beach Downs since.

Rafting and Morning Fire are back following second- and third-place finishes, respectively, in the Sam F. Davis last out. Rafting had a difficult break that day and failed to reach his preferred spot up on or near the lead and may benefit from a better trip today, while Morning Fire tired after leading the way in the early going. Both look to be serious contenders for a bigger share of the purse on Saturday.

Riker make his first start of the year and was a standout in Canada as a juvenile. He’s unraced since a sixth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but was only beaten 10 lengths and has been training well for new conditioner Mark Casse all winter.

The Tampa Bay Derby will be the 11th race on the card with a post time of 5:24 p.m. EST. The heat and humidity has returned to Florida and the afternoon high has been forecasted to reach the upper 80s with only a slight chance of rain.

Florida Oaks

Florida Oaks Report Card

A full field of fillies will race 1 1/16 miles over the Tampa Bay Downs turf in an attempt to become the first Florida Oaks (GIIIT) winner since Secret Status in 2000 to go on and wear the lilies on the first Friday in May. A lot of good fillies have won the race, yet failed to make an impact in the Kentucky Oaks — but the field assembled this year may just have a shot at changing that.

Chad Brown sends out stakes winner Ava’s Kitten for her first start of 2016 after a bit of a winter break since winning the Chelsea Flower at Belmont on Halloween. The daughter of Kitten’s Joy has not missed a beat, however, and has worked strongly in Florida for a return to action since the beginning of the year. The Kenneth and Sarah Ramsey homebred has never put in a bad race and is riding a two-race win streak into Saturday’s filly feature. Top jock Iran Ortiz Jr. will be in the irons for the first time and the pair will break from post position five.

Trainer Tom Proctor shipped Jimmy Durante Stakes (GIIIT) winner Family Meeting into his Tampa shedrow after the Glen Hill Farm homebred disappointed as the heavy favorite last out in the Blue Norther Stakes at Santa Anita in December. Regular rider Drayden Van Dyke will be in California for the big Santa Anita Handicap card so she will have new pilot Brian Pedroza aboard for the first time.

Gamble’s Ghost is another accomplished lass from north of the border having captured a Grade III over the Woodbine turf course in October. She is also making her first start of the year, but is in capable hands with top Canadian trainer Josie Carrol. Hall of Famer John Velazquez has accepted the mount on the Ivan Dalos-owned daughter of Ghostzapper.

As the eighth race on the card, post time for the Florida Oaks is 3:54 p.m. EST.

Hillsborough

Hillsborough Report Card

The tenth race on the Tampa card is the Hillsborough Stakes (GIIIT) for fillies and mares and features champion and Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Tepin. She’s not scaring anyone away as a field of nine others will face her in the 1 1/8-mile test. Regular rider Julien Leparoux will be back aboard for trainer Mark Casse and owner Robert Masterson, and the duo drew post position six, which is a great spot for her break alertly and get to her preferred position pressing the early pace. Post time is scheduled at 4:54 p.m. EST.

Honeybee Stakes

Honeybee Report Card

The top three finishers from last month’s Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park take their next step to the Kentucky Oaks in the Honeybee Stakes (GIII), a 1 1/16-mile test over the Hot Springs oval. The weather is expected to be mostly wet with thunderstorms expected in the area all day.

Martha Washington winner Marquee Miss is riding a two-race win skein heading into the Honeybee and seems to be rounding into top form for trainer Ingrid Mason. The daughter of Cowboy Cal’s only other foray into graded stakes produced a dismal finish in last year’s Alcibiades Stakes (GI) at Keeneland, but she’s seemed to turn a corner and has trained strongly at Oaklawn all winter. Channing Hill is back aboard the Rags Racing Stable-owned filly and the pair will break from post position six.

Grade I winner Nickname was second in the Martha Washington. She was unable to overcome some trouble in that event, yet still finished just a half-length back. Corey Nakatani is back aboard and looking to turn the tables on Marquee Miss with a clean trip and reach the winner’s circle. She won last year’s Frizette Stakes (GI) over a sloppy track and, if the rain comes as forecasted, she will only benefit from off conditions.

Dorodansa, third in the Martha Washington, had trouble at the break in her last start and was shuffled back in the early going and had a bit of trouble, yet still was only defeated by two lengths. Aside from her very first start, this daughter of Bellamy Road has never run a bad race and may also benefit from an off track, having finished a strong second in the slop in a Remington Park stakes in December.

The eighth race Honeybee post time is 5:38 p.m. EST.

Margaret Ransom
California native and lifelong horsewoman Margaret Ransom is a graduate of the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. She got her start in racing working in the publicity departments at Calder Race Course and Hialeah Park, as well as in the racing office at Gulfstream Park in South Florida. She then spent six years in Lexington, KY, at BRISnet.com where she helped create and develop the company’s popular newsletters, Handicapper’s Edge and Bloodstock Journal.

After returning to California, she served six years as the Southern California news correspondent for BloodHorse, assisted in the publicity department at Santa Anita Park and and was a contributor to many other racing publications, including HorsePlayer Magazine and Trainer Magazine. She then spent seven years at HRTV and HRTV.com in various roles as researcher, programming assistant, producer and social media and marketing manager. She has also walked hots and groomed runners, worked the elite sales in Kentucky for top-class consignors and volunteers for several race horse retirement organizations, including CARMA.

Margaret’s very first Breeders’ Cup was at Hollywood Park in 1984 and she has attended more than half of the Breeders’ Cups since. She counts Holy Bull as her favorite horse of all time. She lives in Pasadena with her longtime beau, Tony, three Australian Shepherds and one Golden Retriever.