By Margaret Ransom
The Malibu Stakes (G1) has maintained its place as the opening day feature every year for Santa Anita’s winter/spring racing season. This year, thanks to the weather-related postponement of opening day, the race shares the day with five other graded stakes but still remains the main event on Saturday’s 11-race card thanks to the presence Omaha Beach.
The seven-furlong Malibu used to be the first leg of the prestigious Strub Series which no longer exists after the other two races, the San Fernando and the Strub Stakes, were eliminated. Regardless, sophomores turning four – many of which made at least one start down the Triple Crown Trail earlier in the year – get one last chance to claim a lucrative Grade 1 before the year is out.
Inaugurated in 1952 as the Malibu Sequel Stakes, the name was shortened to Malibu in 1958. It has always been held at seven furlongs.us
Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker still holds the record for the most winners with eight, including two in the same year when the race was held in both January and December of 1977, while Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella seeks a sixth with Omaha Beach.
The Malibu has not only served as the traditional opening day feature, it’s also showcased some of the country’s top sophomores, including Kentucky Derby, Preakness and/or Belmont Stakes winners Determine, Damascus, Spectacular Bid and Ferdinand, as well as A Gleam, Round Table, Native Diver, Buckpasser, Ancient Title, Precisionist, Shared Belief, Runhappy and McKinzie.
The field is unusually small for a Grade 1 race, with Fox Hill Farm’s Omaha Beach facing just four challengers, including three from Hall of Famer trainer Bob Baffert – Roadster, Much Better and Manny Wah (a recent addition to Baffert’s stable). The other entry is trainer Chad Brown’s Complexity, winner of the 2018 Champagne Stakes (G1).
Omaha Beach seeks his third Grade 1 win in his second-to-last start before being retired to Spendthrift Farm. His final race is expected to be in the Pegasus World Cup (GI) on Jan. 25.
Omaha Beach, a bay son of War Front, is coming off of a tough second behind Spun to Run in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI). In his defense, the colt was taken way farther off his game than normal and still finished with good energy, beaten by 2 ¾ lengths.
Hall of Famer Mike Smith returns to ride Omaha Beach, and the colt should have no trouble getting to his preferred spot up just behind the speed. He’s been training well at Santa Anita, has a win in a single start at this distance and has two wins and two seconds from four starts over his home track. He offers no value, but will be tough to beat.
Brown ships Complexity west after the bay son of McLean’s Music spent much of the last 18 months on the shelf, save two starts. He’s talented, for sure, and will carry Hall of Famer Javier Castellano. This colt seems to have more question marks than any runner in the field, though if he runs close to the way he did for his 7 ½-length allowance win at Aqueduct last time out last month he could be primed for the upset.
Susan Moulton’s Manny Wah is making his debut for Baffert after spending his 13-race career with Wayne Catalano in the Midwest, Kentucky and Louisiana. The son of Will Take Charge has some tactical ability to sit off the pace and close from behind. His work over the Santa Anita surface a week ago was impressive (5 furlongs in 1:00 1/5) and it seems that there are no hard feelings for the trainer switch as Catalano’s go-to jockey and son-in-law Channing Hill, who rode in California briefly a decade ago, will be back aboard.
Much Better, who leads the field to post under Flavien Prat for the first time, hasn’t won in a while but has some strong efforts, including a narrow defeat at a half-furlong shorter in an allowance race at Del Mar nearly a month ago. He has some decent graded stakes placings for three-time Malibu winner Baffert and has always been a good work horse. It’s a good bet he’ll be sent to the lead from the inside, but can he hold off the later runners at the wire?
Speedway Stables’ reigning Santa Anita Derby (GI) winner Roadster is making his fifth start since and also looking for his first win since that effort nine months ago, though he has been close a few times. It’s hard to figure what distance this handsome gray son of Quality Road prefers because he’s run well and not so well sprinting and routing, but he is home and carries Joel Rosario for the first time for Baffert.