By Margaret Ransom
A talent-filled opening day program on Saturday at Santa Anita Park will help usher out a year of horse racing that has been unpredictable, turbulent and downright implausible, and hopefully foreshadow a 2021 that will mark a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Once again, the $300,000 Runhappy Malibu Stakes (G1) is the centerpiece of an 11-race card that features an additional five stakes races and has drawn a standout field of six sophomores looking for a win in the final Grade 1 of the year in North America.
A year ago, the first day of Santa Anita’s 2019 winter/spring season was postponed due to inclement weather before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, but things will get underway at day after Christmas under mostly sunny skies and an afternoon high near 70 degrees. First post on opening day is 11 a.m. PT.
Santa Anita’s Winter-Spring Meet runs from Dec. 26-June 20 and offers 95 stakes races, including 10 Grade 1s and 60 graded stakes. The $400,000 Santa Anita Handicap (G1) and $400,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) will be run on March 6, as will the $300,000 San Felipe (G2), an important Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Kentucky Derby (G1) prep. The $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, which has produced 18 Kentucky Derby winners, will be run on April 3, as will the newly downgraded $400,000 Santa Anita Oaks (G2).
The $300,000 Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) will be offered on May 31, as will two other Grade 1s — the $300,000 Shoemaker Mile and the $300,000 Gamely Stakes (G1T).
Racing will be conducted on a Friday-Sunday schedule except on Dec. 31; Jan. 18 (Martin Luther King Day); Feb. 15 (Presidents’ Day); and May 31 (Memorial Day). Post time on weekends is 1 p.m. and 12:30 p.m. on holiday weekends. Also, first post on Dec. 27 is 11:30 a.m.
Fans can watch all of Santa Anita’s live races free of charge at santaanita.com/live
Wagering menu offers something for everybody
Santa Anita will once again offer a comprehensive wagering menu that appeals to all types of handicappers, whether it be the casual bettor or the professional and just about everyone in between.
The popular 20 cents Single Ticket Rainbow Pick Six Jackpot is back, as well as the 50 cents early Pick Five and 50 cents Late Pick Five. Takeout on all straight win, place and show wagers stands at 15.43% while takeout on the Early Pick Four will be 14%. All other exotic wagers carry a 20.68% takeout, except the Stronach Pick Five.
The $1 Super High 5 will again be offered in all races with seven or more starters with a 100% payout on tickets which correctly select five winners and a 100% carryover to the next race, including to the next day, if applicable.
The 20 cents Single Ticket Rainbow Pick Six is simple in that a winning ticket must select every winner in the six-race sequence. If there is no winner, consolations of 70% of the net pool will be paid out to those who had the most successful winners on their tickets. The remaining 30% is carried over in a jackpot pool format, which will continue to accrue until there is a single ticket winner or a mandatory payoff day.
Also, the $1 Stronach Five will again be offered each Friday and will consist of five races from Santa Anita, Gulfstream Park, Laurel Park and Golden Gate Fields. The Stronach Five offers players a low takeout of 12%.
Santa Anita will also continue to offer the $5 Golden Hour Double, and the $1 Golden Hour Pick 4 which is made up of the last races at both Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields.
Additionally on most race days, fans can wager on the Early and Late 50 cents Pick Four, and on opening day and on all other days with 11 race there will also be a 50 cents Mid Pick Four. On these days the Early Pick Four will start with second race, the Mid-Four on the fifth race and the Late Pick Four kicks off with the eighth race.
Also offered once again will be $1 exactas, $2 rolling Daily Doubles, 50 cents rolling Pick Threes and 10 cents Superfectas on all races with a minimum of six runners.
Malibu attracts Charlatan, Thousand Words, Nashville, Collusion Illusion
The Malibu used to be the first leg of the prestigious Strub Series, named for the track’s former owner, which now no longer exists due to the elimination of the other two races from the stakes calendar, the San Fernando and the Strub. Regardless, sophomores about ready to turn 4 – some of which made at least one start down the reorganized Triple Crown trail — 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 and it has always been contested at 7 furlongs on the man track.
The late Hall of Fame jockey Bill Shoemaker holds the record for the most winners with eight, including two in 1977 when the race was held in both January and December. Fellow Hall member Richard Mandella has saddled six winners, including Omaha Beach earlier in 2020.
Throughout history, the Malibu has not only served as the traditional opening day feature, it’s also drawn some of the country’s top sophomores as they end their season, including Kentucky Derby, Preakness and/or Belmont Stakes winners Determine, Damascus, Spectacular Bid and Ferdinand, as well as the likes of A Gleam, Round Table, Native Diver, Buckpasser, Ancient Title, Precisionist, Shared Belief, Runhappy and McKinzie.
The early favorite for Saturday’s edition is the Steve Asmussen-trained Nashville, who is undefeated in three starts and ships in to California from New Orleans for his first stab at graded stakes company. The CHC Inc. and WinStar Farm-owned son of Speightstown is wicked fast and improving, a dangerous combination, and since making his debut in early September hasn’t missed a beat.
He skipped the Breeders’ Cup, a wise move maybe for an unseasoned colt whose connections are seeking a 2021 campaign, but he did turn up on racing’s championship weekend to win the Perryville Stakes on the undercard by 3 ½ lengths. He’s also improving with each start and could be any kind. Regular jockey Ricardo Santana, Jr. is in town for the mount.
Agnew, Orr, Schneider and Xitco’s Bing Crosby Stakes (G1) winner Collusion Illusion wasn’t a factor in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1) seven weeks ago, but is back home at his favorite track (4-2-0-1). And while he’s taking his first stab at 7 furlongs, he’s won at just a 16ht-of-a-mile shorter and shouldn’t have too much trouble with the slight stretch out.
Mark Glatt trains the son of Twirling Candy, who will be ridden by regular jockey Flavien Prat and who as a closer will benefit from the predicted quick pace. His one drawback is his sometimes problematic and less-than-ideal inside post position at the distance coming out of the chute.
Thousand Words is one of two here for Baffert, who has saddled three winners of this race, the most recent being McKinzie in 2018. This Albaugh Family Stable and Spendthrift Farm-owned colt was a well-beaten eighth in his last start, the Preakness (G1) on Oct. 3 after winning the Shared Belief Stakes at Del Mar in August. He did, however, win the Robert Lewis Stakes (G2) over this track earlier this year and has a nice record of two wins from three starts at Santa Anita. This distance may be a little short for the $1 million son of Pioneerof the Nile, but he’s got the benefit of jockey John Velazquez and some good works over the track.
Baffert’s other runner is SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables’ Charlatan, who has been sidelined since June with an ankle injury. The $700,000 son of Speightstown finished first in his last start in the May 2 Arkansas Derby (G1) and has been working exceptionally well over this track since the end of October without missing a beat. He was stripped of that win for a later medication violation.
He probably wants more distance, but this is a good spot to bring him back and probably a good distance to prep for a potential start in the Pegasus World Cup (G1) at Gulfstream Park next month. He’ll be part of the quick early pace and if he’s fit, could have some upset potential if he can keep up with the favorite. Mike Smith will be in the irons for the first time.
”Charlatan is doing really well,” Baffert said.. “You can only do so much coming off a layoff going seven eighths. He’s healthy and that’s the main thing; he should run well.”
Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners, Twin Creeks Racing Stables LLC and Kathleen & Robert Verratti’s Independence Hall broke his maiden at this distance by 4¾ lengths at Parx 15 months ago, then won the Nashua Stakes (G3) and Jerome Stakes before a second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa and a poor fifth in the Florida Derby (G1), all in the care of trainer Mike Trombetta.
He will be saddled for the second time by local horseman Mike McCarthy after winning an optional claiming race at Del Mar seven weeks ago in what was his first start in more than seven months. He’s been working great and has some capability of running the kind of race, numbers-wise, that makes him a legit contender. Joel Rosario will be back aboard.
Express Train is a talented son of Union Rags who has had trouble when stepping into graded stakes company and otherwise would be a very consistent sophomore. The C R K Stable-owned colt, who they paid $500,000 for, does have some excuses in poor starts and some significant bumping in both of his stakes starts, so a clean trip under jockey Juan Hernandez may make all the difference in earning a piece of the graded stakes pie.
Post time for the Malibu, which is the day’s 10th race, has been set for 3:30 p.m.
La Brea attracts nearly full field
The $300,000 La Brea Stakes (G1) has long served as the filly counterpart to the Malibu, and through the decades since it was first contested in 1974 the 7-furlong test for 3-year-old fillies has attracted some amazing competitors, let alone winners.
The La Brea used to be part of the La Canada Series for fillies and mares that also included the now defunct El Encino Stakes and La Canada Stakes, which will be contested on Jan. 9.
Last year, the one-eyed and sometimes difficult Hard Not To Love captured the La Brea and added her name to a prestigious list of past winners, including Unique Bella, Indian Blessing, Got Koko, Affluent, Spain, Hidden Lake, Exotic Wood, Very Subtle and Terlingua.
Retired Hall of Fame jockeys Chris McCarron and Gary Stevens, as well as Mike Smith – who was aboard Hard Not To Love a year ago – each have booted home five La Brea winners. Bob Baffert seeks an eighth winner as a trainer with four of the 11 runners on Saturday.
Winchell Thoroughbreds, LLC, Thomas Reiman, William Dickson & Deborah Easter’s Finite shipped west to California off a win in the 1-mile Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs a month ago. The daughter of Munnings, who is trained by Steve Asmussen, has only been out of the money twice in her 11 career starts and at one time in late 2019 and into this year strung together an impressive list of six consecutive wins. A later runner, she will like the predicted quick early pace in front of her. Ricardo Santana, Jr. will be back aboard.
Prince Sultan Bin Mishal Al Saud’s Merneith, one of Baffert’s four, is coming off a nice win in the Qatar Fort Springs Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard and the daughter of American Pharoah is seeking a first graded victory here. It took three starts to break her maiden, but when she did it she made a 10-length statement. She has big figures and a tactical turn of foot and having John Velazquez back aboard can only help her chances.
Baffert will also saddle another daughter of American Pharoah in Grand Farm Family’s Himiko in her first stakes start. She’s riding a two-race win streak beginning with her maiden win over this track two months ago and including an allowance win at Del Mar. She is improving and gets jockey Flavien Prat.
Another daughter of Into Mischief, Speedway Stables’ maiden winner Provocation has had some trouble against winners but Baffert tries her again here off a wide third-place finish in allowance company at Del Mar seven weeks ago. She has a lot of upside but she’s still learning and may be in over her head, at least at this stage of her career.
Golden Principal is Baffert’s fourth starter and is coming off a nice allowance win at a mile at Del Mar a month ago. The Constitution filly, who is owned by Pegram, Watson and Weitman, was previously third in the Santa Ynez Stakes in her only other stakes start and returns to graded company here with good figures and exceptional morning works. Smith is back aboard.
Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown ships out Motivated Seller from Palm Meadows in Florida and the Klaravich Stables-owned daughter of Into Mischief will attempt to turn the tables on Merneith after finishing second in the Fort Springs Stakes last out. This will be her first start beyond 6 furlongs and local leading rider Umberto Rispoli gets the call.
Secret Keeper was second in the one-mile Torrey Pines (G3) at Del Mar in August and was well backed at 4-1 in the Raven Run Stakes at Keeneland in October before a bad stumble at the break eliminated all chances. If she gets out of the gate cleanly under jockey Abel Cedillo, this daughter of Into Mischief, who is trained by Cliff Sise, Jr., could be a factor for a larger share of the pot.
Godolphin’s homebred Fair Maiden was fourth in the Fort Springs in her last start, but had some trouble and trainer Eoin Harty is confident she can turn it around for a better finish here in her third start off a nearly 11-month layoff. She had a nice turf career, but has shown promise on the dirt and ends up here in her attempt to earn a graded win.
Don Alberto’s homebred Stellar Sound, who was once trained by Baffert, makes her third start for trainer Mike McCarthy and a return to graded company after a third in the Bayakoa Stakes (G3) at Los Alamitos three weeks ago. She’s talented, but as a frontrunning type she has her work cut out for her with her post and the number of early types to her inside.
Former claimer Biddy Duke comes off a win in the grassy Senator Ken Maddy Stakes (G3) at 5 ½ furlongs and trainer Doug O’Neill returns her to the main track and stretches her out to seven-eighths. She’s speedy, but she will have company on the front end and the added distance against this class of competition may be to her detriment.
The La Brea is the day’s eighth race with a post time of 2:30 p.m. PT.