Santa Anita News and Notes Dec. 31

• The Stronach Group, who own Santa Anita Park along with a number of other race tracks in this country, made a few poor decisions in 2019. But to their credit, they have also made a lot of good decisions in trying to save the sport we all dearly love, and one of them was to delay the opening of the Great Race Place to Dec. 28 due to inclement weather. I have been going to Santa Anita for opening day since 1967 and this past Saturday was as good as it gets. The track put on 11 races, 7 of them stakes, the weather was perfect, there were no breakdowns as both the turf course and the main track looked spectacular, the San Gabriel mountains in the background looked majestic, and 35,045 fans came to have a good time. And a good time was had by all. Two stars of racing, Omaha Beach and Gift Box, both won easily, a one eyed filly took down the La Brea stakes, there was a $110 winner for the longshot players, and Mike Smith, at the young age of 54, won 4 races on the card, all of them stakes and two of them, Grade Ones. Both the main track and the turf course played fair and both were in excellent shape after the city of Arcadia absorbed 3.5 inches of rain prior to Saturday. Racing resumes this Wednesday with a good 10 race card and then will race Friday, Saturday, and Sunday as well. The single ticket jackpot of the 20 cent pick six will have $117,616 in the pool for Wednesday.
• Stakes racing on Saturday was as good as it gets and although the signature race of opening day each year, the Malibu stakes, only had five runners, it was still a fun race to watch, as the heavy favorite, Omaha Beach just destroyed a decent field as if it was a morning workout. He won by three easy lengths over Roadster and Smith sat motionless on him the entire trip. The winning time was 1:22.33 for 7 furlongs over a track that is still somewhat dull but in very good shape, with plenty of “bounce” to it. He now heads for Florida for the Pegasus Cup at Gulfstream for his final race before the breeding shed. Not many horses get a loud ovation when they return to the winners circle, but Omaha Beach is that popular. He will be sorely missed by race fans as well as his ever patient trainer, Richard Mandella, who would dearly love to race him throughout 2020. As Mandella jokingly said, “I should have gelded him when I had the chance”.
• There were two other Grade 1 races on Saturday and both had exciting finishes. That man Mike Smith went from last to first with Hard Not to Love in the 7 furlong La Brea for 3 year old fillies and paid $25.60. The race was set up for him when the heavy favorite Bellafina set blistering early fractions of 21.70 and 44.41 under substitute rider Victor Espinoza, who really has no clue in what he is doing these days. The winner, who has only one eye due to a training accident early in her career, figured to be on or near the lead. But when she broke slowly and was last early, Smith wisely let her relax and find her stride later in the race. Bellafina went off as a heavy odds on favorite due to her good second in the Breeders Cup, but she needs a target to run at to be at her best. Prat has always been her only rider, but when he called in sick on his return to France, Espinoza picked up the mount. On Saturday, Bellafina became the target. The other Grade 1 was the American Oaks for 3 year old fillies at a mile and a quarter on the turf. Lady Prancealot went off as the 8/5 favorite and under a clever ride by Joe Bravo, just did get up in the final strides along the inside to win by a half over Mucho Unusual. The winner came from well off the pace as she usually does and most of these horses have never been 10 furlongs. This was the first Grade 1 win for “Prancealot” as she had two Grade 3 wins prior. She is trained by Richie Baltas, who has a barn full of turf stakes horses. Favored Gift Box took down the Grade 2 San Antonio for older runners at 6 to 5 by an easy four lengths for Sadler and Rosario. Midcourt, who was coming into the race with four straight victories, should have been a factor in this race, but under a very poor ride by Victor Espinoza, he was a distant third and no threat in the race. He broke slow leaving the gate, moved over toward the fence, then the rider rushed him up on the outside and got fanned 8 wide into the clubhouse turn. He had no shot after that loss of ground and he got third only due to his current good form. The other Grade 2 on the card was the Mathis Brothers Mile for three year olds at a mile on the lawn and the 6 to 5 favorite prevailed. Mo Forza won his third straight graded stakes for Peter Miller, this time with Rosario up in the good time of 1:34.26 over a course rated as good. They will be looking at the Pegasus Turf at Gulfstream for their next start in late January.
• If Saturday belonged to jockey Mike Smith with four winners on the day, then Abel Cedillo owned Sunday, as he also won four on the day. And just for kicks, the very talented Joel Rosario won three on both Saturday and Sunday. Flavien Prat, who is recovering from the flu, came back to ride on Sunday, but probably should have taken another day to rest. And then there is 47 year old Victor Espinoza, who says he is finally healthy and happy and ready to ride lots of winners this year. After putting up very poor rides on Bellafina, Giza Goddess, and Midcourt, all in stakes on Saturday, he rode just as poorly on Sunday in what few opportunities he had. What it takes to be a good rider is good decision making. When to go inside, when to go outside, when to go, and when to take a hold of your horse, and most importantly, how to stay out of trouble. Espinoza, who is a Hall of Famer, seems to have lost this part of the riding equation. With top riders like Rosario, Prat, Smith, Van Dyke, and Bejarano, all ahead of him, he is going to be hard pressed to find good mounts, even with his top agent Brian Beach doing the selling. Maybe he just had a bad week, we all do that’s for sure.
• As I mentioned in the first paragraph, the Stronach Group has done a lot of good things in 2019, and here is an update on the new rules for medications and the use of Lasix. Some of these are just band aids for the horses, but you have to start somewhere to provide for safer racing. With regards to Lasix, two year olds in 2020 will race without this medication. If they are bleeders, they will have to race outside the state. All horses 3 and up will be allowed Lasix but only 250 mg., which is about 50 % less. With regards to cortisone injections, a joint cannot be injected within 14 days of racing. Any horse must wait at least 10 days to have a timed workout after receiving any type of joint injection. In my humble opinion, joint objections should not be allowed, period. If a horse needs joint injections to keep them racing, then they should not be racing. That’s why they have layup farms, so a horse can take the time to recover from minor issues. Once you start injecting the joint, whether it be the knee or the ankle, it’s just a matter of time before the horse will break down, either in the mornings or in afternoon racing. Both owners and trainers have got to learn to turn a horse out and give them the necessary time. Many in the industry do, but many do not.
By Rod Young (Turfdom)