By Margaret Ransom
This year marks the 35th running of the $300,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1), the final California Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win & You’re In” race for next month’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1).
Saturday’s six-furlong sprint was once known as the Ancient Title and named for the great California-bred champion and Hall of Famer who spent most of his illustrious career winning at almost all distances in the Golden State, before the moniker was changed to its current incarnation in 2012.
Two-time champion sprinter Roy H used this race as a springboard to winning the BC Sprint the past two years. So did Amazombie in 2011, Kona Gold in 2000, Elmhurst in 1997 and Cardmania in 1993. Roy H, though back in training, hasn’t been seen competitively since being scratched in Dubai in late March so this year a field of five will make an attempt to become the next runner to complete the sweep of the two races.
That leads us to the long-awaited return of Rick Porter’s Omaha Beach. The 3-year-old colt is set for his first start since winning the Arkansas Derby (G1) in April before being scratched as the Kentucky Derby (G1) favorite due to a throat issue two days before the race. Surgery followed to repair an entrapped epiglottis that put him on the road to recovery.
For one reason or another, there were two aborted returns – one in the Shared Belief at Del Mar in mid-August, the other in the Ack Ack Stakes at Churchill Downs last weekend) – that landed the son of War Front, trained by Richard Mandella, at home at Santa Anita.
It’s pretty clear Omaha Beach isn’t a sprinter, and he’s never even tried this six-furlong distance. He started his career on turf and moved to the dirt where he broke his maiden at seven furlongs by nine lengths. And then he excelled around two turns and started down the Derby trail. He has speed, but he has routing-type speed in a race with others more seasoned and accomplished around one turn.
With all of this said, though, it’s hard to second-guess a Hall of Fame trainer, and there’s a good chance this race is simply a prep for another Breeders’ Cup event (Dirt Mile?) While a win is ideal, maybe just getting a good, solid race into him will be the victory.
“We’re anxious to see how it goes, but the main thing is getting him back to the races,’’ Mandella said. “We’ll see what might be next after we run. I’ll tell you after we get a race into him.”
Omaha Beach will be retired to Spendthrift Farm for 2020 stud duty, but Porter has said that Spendthrift claims control after the Pegasus World Cup (G1) in January, so between now and then anything is possible. Hall of Famer Mike Smith will be back aboard seeking a third win in this race, as is Mandella.
A bit of a last-minute surprise was the addition of 12-length Amsterdam Stakes (G2) winner Shancelot, coming off his first defeat when third by a head at 2-5 in the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1) at Saratoga six weeks ago.
Trainer Jorge Navarro said that last race was a head scratcher in that he thought jockey Emisael Jaramillo rode the son of Shanghai Bobby a bit over-confidently. Not one to hold grudges, he brings the East Coast-based rider to California for the mount, which is his first at Santa Anita since Delta Bluesman finished sixth in the Sprint in 2016.
Shancelot doesn’t look anything like a sprinter physically but speed is certainly his superpower, and if he gets out on the front end, especially without a challenge, he’ll be tough to beat in his fifth career start.
“He’ll win,” a confident Navarro said. “I have no doubt. This horse is in perfect shape. I think maybe (Jaramillo) was overconfident in his last race, but we talked about and he’s OK. It’s easy to be overconfident on a horse like this one and we all make mistakes.”
Despite the prediction of a victory, win or lose Shancelot will be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup, according to Navarro, with a possible year-end start in the Malibu Stakes (G1).
John Sadler is the leading trainer in this race with four wins and sends out the talented Lane’s End and Hronis Racing-owned Flagstaff in his stakes debut. This talented Speightstown brings a win in an allowance race at Del Mar seven weeks ago as his most recent start, which was at six furlongs. He’s only finished worse than third once in his seven-race career. He’s got some tactical ability to sit off the pace, which can only help him here, and has been training lights out over the surface for weeks. Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza, who has never won this race, will be back aboard this $475,000 Fasig-Tipton August Select yearling purchase.
Sadler will also saddle Grade 3-placed Horse Greedy, who he claimed for Hronis for $40,000 nearly 18 months ago.
California Street also makes his black-type debut after finishing third behind Flagstaff in the same six-furlong allowance/optional claiming race at Del Mar. Paddy Gallagher trains this $20,000 son of Street Boss, who has yet to win at this six furlongs and who has done most of his running at farther distances. We have all been reminded recently that upsets happen when we least expect them, but this gelding seems to be in deep here.
Doug O’Neill picks an awfully ambitious spot for One Flew South, who has raced just three times in his career and not since finishing last behind Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby. He may be an entry to help fill the race and it’s hard to imagine he’ll be any factor whatsoever at least judging by his works at his base of San Luis Rey Downs.
The Santa Anita Sprint Championship is Saturday’s ninth race with a post time of 4:55 p.m. PT.