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Dec 28 Santa Anita News and Notes

Mother Nature had a lot to do with Santa Anita’s opening day card as the Arcadia oval took 4.5 inches of rain in the days leading up to Sunday, hence all six grass races were run on the main track. Based on a total of 10 late scratches in the turf races, and many turf horses trying dirt for the very first time, it made handicapping a real puzzle. But with an on track attendance of 20,000 plus and a total handle of $19.4 million, the third highest opening day ever, the track pulled it off. And the maintenance crew did an outstanding job of keeping the main track “fast” throughout the day, though it was quite dull, at least until the Malibu stakes came around in race 10. Halfway through the program on Monday, it started raining again and they had to call both races 7 and 9 off the turf. In two days of racing our Best Bet with three stars was scratched both days. But after years of drought conditions in California, the skies have been opening up a bit more this winter, which is even changing the racing programs for this week. On Monday the track announced they will be cancelling racing this Thursday with plenty more rainfall coming, and the three stakes scheduled for Friday will be run over the weekend. So racing will resume this Friday with a three day race week and a nine race card for Friday.

STAKES RECAP: Opening day at Santa Anita’s winter meet has always had a star studded lineup with plenty of stakes action and this one was no different. But the highlight of the card is always the Malibu stakes for three year olds at seven furlongs on the main track. It’s the last stakes for sophomores before they are forced to take on older horses the following year. This year’s running had a couple of stars in the field and at least one of them didn’t disappoint. Flightline came into the race off two dazzling performances winning both of his starts by 10 plus lengths and his last race gave him a Beyer number of 114 which tied him with the highest number of any horse in the country this year. Based on those stats and with Prat in the irons, he was made the heavy 2 to 5 favorite in a field of seven. He did break a step slow, but was quickly hustled to the front, primarily because of his natural speed and on a track that was not playing to fast times, he ran the half in 44.48 and ¾ in 1:08.72 with Prat sitting like a statue all the way. He romped by 11 and ½ lengths with Prat sitting chilly the length of the stretch. He hardly took a deep breath and in his wake was a strong field of sprinters including Dr. Schivel, who lost by just a nose in the Breeders Cup Dirt Sprint. The Beyer number came back at 118, the highest by any horse in the country this year. It was probably the most impressive race I’ve seen in the last 3 or 4 years. Even if Dr. Schivel would have fired and ran his best, he still would have been a distant second. Finishing second was the horse with the other 114 Beyer figure this year, Baby Yoda, who achieved that number last summer at Saratoga. Stilleto Boy, off at 19/1, got third and continues to outrun his odds. The winning trainer, John Sadler, says that Flightline will run four races in 2022 if all goes well, and will target the Grade 1 Met Mile at Belmont Park in early summer. That is a one turn mile, but there is no question this horse can route, and he may be even more impressive off two turns.

Other stakes on the Saturday card were two other Grade Ones, the Hollywood Oaks at 10 furlongs scheduled for the turf, and the La Brea stakes for three year old fillies at 7 furlongs on the main. The Oaks, for three year old fillies, was the only turf race where there wasn’t a late scratch. Of course one had to dig deep to find the winner as both of the first two finishers were trying dirt for the first time in their careers. As it turned out trainer Mike McCarthy saddled the exacta and both were good prices. The winner paid $31.20 and wired the field to win by three at the wire under Juan Hernandez. Her name was Queen Goddess and she had not shown that type of early speed in the past. The runner up, Nicest, was a true distance horse and the rider, John Velasquez, was looking for his fifth winner on the card. She came from off the pace to get second at 7/1, loomed a big threat at the 1/8 pole, but the winner had another gear and that was that. Fluffy Socks for trainer Chad Brown ran third at 6/1 but was no factor in the race. When Hernandez makes the lead in a route race, he is awfully tough to pass in the lane, and though everyone is aware of his talents, he continues to bring in good priced horses day in and day out. The other Grade 1 on Sunday was the La Brea for three year old fillies and this race has a long history of being won by a longshot, and this year was no different. Baffert had two in here and Private Mission was made the heavy 3/5 favorite with Prat up. But as is often the case, it was the other Baffert runner, Kalypso, who got the money in an impressive performance coming off an 8 month layoff. She laid third early down the back side as a pace duel developed, approached the leaders at the top of the lane, then cruised on home to win by five with the hot riding Johnny V. Her time for 7/8 was 1:24.78 which was a full 3.4 seconds slower than Flightline in the Malibu, just to make a comparison of how brilliant that colt was on Sunday. Brilliant Cut ran on well to get second but was no factor to win the race. Kalypso paid $19.60 on the front end while Private Mission made a move on the turn, then gave it up quickly in a dismal performance. Baffert has always been excellent with layoff horse over six months away winning at a 28% clip with a large set of samples, and he did so once again.

The Grade 2 San Antonio stakes at one mile on the main track for three and up was an exciting race. Superstar sophomore Hot Rod Charlie was made the heavy 1/5 favorite off an excellent three year old campaign, but he came up a nose short on Sunday as Express Train for John Shirreffs grinded out a hard fought decision and getting the bob right on the wire. The winner paid $16.00 as an overlay in the race. Eight Rings, a Baffert runner, set the pace with moderate fractions of 23.87 and 47.37 for the half, and held gamely in the lane and was only a half length away from the winner at the wire. “Charlie” looked like he was in trouble at the ¼ pole, as Prat was scrubbing away on him and he wasn’t responding, but his class kept him running and he lost a heartbreaker right on the wire. “Express” won his fifth race in 15 starts and his bankroll is now at $815,800. The Grade 2 Mathis Mile for three year olds was moved from the turf to the main track and the improving Law Professor gunned down the 7/5 favorite Beyond Brilliant to win by a neck in yet another good finish. The winner paid $10.20 under Jose Ortiz and was Mike McCarthy’s second graded stakes win on the day. Brilliant was 8 lengths clear of the third place finisher, Tarantino, for trainer Ed Moger. The winner was coming off of a first allowance condition win, but it was against older runners.

One of the reasons and perhaps the major reason John Velasquez decided to ride at this meet rather than staying back east, was the support that he had from a number of trainers, most principally Bob Baffert. Velasquez was the riding star on Sunday with 4 victories and two of them were for Baffert. His win percentage with Bob is now at 46% and it is from a fairly large sample of races. Yes, many of those races are on favorites, but there are plenty of good priced horses mixed in as well, such as Kalypso at $19.60. He then came back and won one more on Monday. Flavien Prat will stay the top rider on this circuit, but Velasquez is going to win a lot of races and may very well challenge Juan Hernandez for the second spot. Baffert got off to a great start at the meet winning three on Sunday. Abel Cedillo got the riding hat trick on Monday.

With no stakes races now scheduled for this Friday, Santa Anita will run four stakes on Saturday headed up by the Grade 3 Bobby Frankel stakes for older fillies and mares on the turf. Rain is expected on Wednesday and Thursday this week, but it is expected to be dry Friday through Sunday, though the turf should be “off” a bit and rated good. Also on Saturday will be the Grade 3 Sham stakes for newly turned three year olds that will be on the Derby trail for 2022. The race had 12 nominations and will be headed up by stakes winners MacKinnon (O’Neill) and Rockefeller (Baffert). Trainer Richie Baltas has the talented Luck and Bodhicitta lined up for the Frankel stakes. Also on Saturday will be the Grade 2 Joe Hernandez stakes at six and a half down the hill (weather permitting) for older runners and the Grade 3 La Canada stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile and a sixteenth on the main. Sunday will have three stakes now with both the Eddie Logan and the Blue Norther moved from Friday to Sunday. The Eddie Logan had 20 nominations headed up by two Baffert runners, Pinehurst and Newgrange while the Blue Norther also had 20 nominees. The ungraded Kalookan stakes rounds out the Sunday card at six and a half on the main track for older fillies and mares. So all in all, racing should be set with a strong string of races over the weekend in spite of a lot of precipitation coming from the clouds.

By Rod Young (Turfdom)

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