Santa Anita News and Notes for June 9, 2020

  • For the most part, the main track and the turf course both played fair this past weekend. There are days when the outside lanes are a bit better than the inside on the main track, like on Sunday, but one is really splitting hairs as most often the better horses are winning on those lanes. The turf course continues to be fair more often than not regardless of the placement of the inner rails. The quality of the racing was good this past weekend but most of the fields are still on the short side. That will change when Del Mar opens up on July 10, but the last two weeks of Santa Anita figure to be on the slim side with regards to entries. Jockey Flavien Prat won 3 on Friday, 4 on Saturday, and then 2 more on Sunday to run away with the riding title. However, the training title is a real dog fight. Peter Miller won two on Sunday to grab the lead with 29 wins. Bob Baffert won one to be second at 28, and Richard Baltas is third with 27. Both Miller and Baltas have lots of claimers, Baffert has none. All of his horses are “A” stock, so that means Miller and Baltas may be dropping some horses in class looking for victories the final two weeks. Be on the lookout where these two gentlemen place their horses in the next six race days, as they both would love to win the training title. Racing will resume on Friday with the single ticket jackpot of the pick six swelling to $778,247. This number should hit $1 million by closing day where the payout will be mandatory on June 21.                                                                                                                        
  •  They had four graded stakes this past weekend and though all four races were high on quality, the field sizes were 7, 6, 5, and 4. The three on Saturday were led by the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, which has been won by many outstanding horses over the years and often has much to say about who might win the Kentucky Derby, which is now the first Saturday in September. This year was no different as 7 went to the post and it came down to the two favorites at the top of the lane. But by the 1/8 pole there was no doubt who the winner would be as Honor A.P. had already corralled Authentic and was driving away with those long beautiful strides that can win the mile and a quarter Derby. In all fairness to Authentic, he had a rough trip. Breaking from the extreme outside, he took a right hand turn right out of the gate, then had to be hustled up near the lead going into the clubhouse turn, and even then, he was still caught four wide in and out of the turn. That took a lot out of him early and when “Honor” came to him at the top of the stretch, he had little to offer. But take nothing away from the winner, as he had the perfect trip with “Big Money Mike” in the irons and he went on to win by three and paid $6.20 as the second choice in the wagering. Authentic will go on to fight another day and still is a major threat for the big race in September. He needed this race to some degree and never sell a Baffert runner short in any Triple Crown race. Both horses will need another race between now and September and where that may be is anyone’s guess. The winner got a Beyer figure of 102 for the race and the runner up received a 98.                                                                                                                             
  •   The other Grade 1 on the card was the Hollywood Gold Cup at a mile and a quarter on the main track, also a race with a very rich history. The great Native Diver, a Cal bred, won this race for 3 consecutive years in 1965-1967 and then Lava Man repeated that effort in 2005-2007. Other greats who have won this race have been Seabiscuit back in 1938, Noor in 1950, Affirmed, Cigar, Game On Dude, Ferdinand, and Skip Away. This year just six showed up and Baffert wound up with a consolation prize as Improbable, who is finally coming around, easily handled the five others and went on to win by 3 as the 6/5 choice under Van Dyke. He got away smoothly from the gate, tracked a longshot through moderate fractions while in second, took over at the ¼ pole and that was that. Higher Power under Prat rallied to get second but was never really a factor in the race. Midcourt, who was the second choice in the race at 2/1, broke slowly as he often does, was away in last, and was no factor at any point. He needs to be near the lead and Victor Espinoza too often does a poor job of getting him away from the blocks. Edwin Maldonado would fit this horse perfectly. Improbable received a 105 Beyer for the race while Higher Power received a 101. The other graded stakes Saturday was the Santa Anita Oaks for three year old fillies at a mile and a sixteenth on the main track and it is now rated a Grade 2. What’s with that?? When your recent winners of this race are horses like Songbird and Beholder, this should still be a Grade 1, and though only four got to the gate Saturday, the winner sure looked like Grade one material to me. The Ken McPeek invader Swiss Skydiver made short work of this field by going right to the front from his rail position and made every pole a winning one in hand with his ears pricked. The final margin was four but could have been much more had “Big Money Mike” pushed him. Speech rallied for second under Prat but was no factor in the race while our choice, Merneith, who was coming off a maiden win at Oaklawn in a sprint, never could get to the lead and chased the winner throughout until she ran out of gas and was a distant third. “Skydiver” got a 95 Beyer for the race and paid $3.20 as the heavy wagering choice. The top two finishers will be targeting the Kentucky Oaks in September, one day before the Derby.  Then on Sunday, guess who took over the lead with the most stakes wins at the meet. Of course, none other than “Big Money Mike Smith,” who did it again with one of his favorite horses, McKinzie, who is now 3 for 3 at 7 furlongs in the Grade 2 Triple Bend stakes. He stalked the early lead of Ax Man and Fashionably Fast and put it to them down the lane to win off by a length and a half in 1:22.56 as the 1 to 2 favorite. This also took the “sting” out of Baffert’s week as he saddled the winner, who will run next in the one turn Met Mile at Belmont, where he was second last year to the great sprinter Mitole. Fashionably Fast, who was coming into this race with six wins in a row, mostly Cal bred stakes, ran huge to get second here at 10/1. He is one of the gamest horses on the grounds and Dean Pederson has done a fantastic job of training this son of Lucky Pulpit.                                                                                                                                             
  •  Most people involved in this game would like to walk in Bob Baffert’s shoes as each year he is loaded with talented Derby prospects, and even has a fair amount of handicap stars of older age. But even the rich and famous have their bad weeks and not much went well for him this past week as Nadal was forced into retirement from a minor injury, and then his other Derby prospect, Charlatan, had a filling in his right front ankle and will need some minor surgery. That knocks him out of the Belmont and the Kentucky Derby. He might be able to be back in time for the Preakness in October. Then Authentic, his third undefeated Derby candidate, gets soundly beaten in the Santa Anita Derby by Honor A.P. Baffert is still waiting word whether Charlatan may be disqualified from the Arkansas Derby from an overdose of lidocaine, which is a legal Class 2 drug, but there was too much in his system, at least from the initial lab report. He did have a couple of consolation prizes Saturday as Improbable won the Gold Cup and then his $3.6 million dollar purchase made his debut, and even though he had a rough trip, he won like an odds on favorite should win. Cezanne appears to have a lot of talent, but he’s a long way from a mile and a quarter in September.                                               

As more and more race tracks open around the country, just about all of them are racing without spectators due to the danger of the Corona Virus, especially around large group gatherings. To my surprise, there is one exception, and that is the state of Louisiana, as Louisiana Downs opened on Saturday and spectators were welcome. They are doing temperature checks at the point of entry and face masks are recommended but not made mandatory. The winners circle ceremony will be limited to just six people. The Governor of the state, John Edwards, states that the illness is decreasing in both new cases and deaths, and he’s willing to test the waters. Louisiana had been one of the hot zones in the country for Covid19, especially around New Orleans. I personally think that’s a bigger gamble than trying to find the winner of a race, but they did draw quite well on opening day. Ah, to be young again and fearless!! I know both Del Mar and Saratoga are hoping to be able to have race fans on site before their meets end, but they both are planning to start without spectators in mid July.

By Rod Young (Turfdom)