Although the $200,000 G2 San Gabriel Stakes is the purse feature of this weekend's action, the focus of the thoroughbred world turns to the glamour division: three-year-olds. There's an up-to-the-nanosecond Kentucky Derby countdown somewhere and a future pool some place that allow you to get in the mood for those Finest Two Minutes.
So this weekend the Picks & Ponderings pair again sets up shop at Santa Anita. The west coast's first Kentucky Derby qualifying point races are this weekend with the G3 Sham at a two-turn mile on Saturday. The G3 Sham and G2 San Gabriel, along with the G3 Las Cienegas, serve as the focus of this piece. A separate piece from Nicolle Neulist will investigate Sunday's G2 A separate piece from Nicolle Neulist will investigate Sunday's G2 Santa Ynez around one turn for the fillies aiming to the Kentucky Oaks.
We once again take a moment to give a shout-out to our friends at Hawthorne Race Course in this space. The track is on a two-month winter break with live racing curtailed until March. However, the G3 Illinois Derby is slated for a return after a year away, to be run on April 22 during the Spring meet.
The Santa Anita website carries a free live stream of these, and all races from Santa Anita.
Authors of individual race previews are denoted by initials afterwards: PM for Paul Mazur, and NN for Nicolle Neulist. Selections for the Las Cienegas and the San Gabriel are for turf only. All races detailed in this piece are scheduled for Saturday January 7. Morning lines were not available at original publish time.
Updated Thursday, January 5 to add pre-scratch morning lines.
Race 3 -- G3 Las Cienegas Stakes -- About six and one-half furlongs on Downhill Turf -- post time 1:30 pm PT
Las Cienegas, roughly translated to English, means "the marsh" or "the swamp". It fits the natural geography of Southern California of its lowlands and valleys - this of course long before movies and television and racetracks. It takes on a more sly meaning nowadays, given the race could be run on wet marshy turf as the race is in the SoCal rainy season. The race moved to the downhill course in 1991 and a year later got its first iteration as a graded stake. In recent years, this race has been run in March and April but moves to early in the year as part of Santa Anita's restructuring. The race for elder females on weeds carries $100,000 in purse funds, G3 status, and counts stakes namesake Unzip Me (2010) and double Breeders' Cup Turf sprint heroine Mizdirection (2012, 2013) as its winners.
The opening day G3 San Simeon proved that affinity on the downhill course is a major plus point to have. In this field of five, only horse shows multiple wins over the downhill: WATCH THIS CAT. A Corey Nakatani/Richard Baltas jockey/trainer production, WATCH THIS CAT rides a two race win streak into the G3 Las Cienegas. She sports two wire-to-wire victories over the course, the first in a "diet N1X" starter allowance and the latter in a straight N1X that also carried an optional claiming provision. This may look like a jump up in class, but the field isn't terrible stronger than a twice other than allowance. With a dearth of other runners it's possible WATCH THIS CAT clears, goes on, and takes them coast-to-coast. She does have some fight, a plus for a front runner. South American expat PAPAQUITA COQUETA finished third beaten a neck for all the marbles in her only time on the downhill. Unseen since winning an upper level AOC at Del Mar going five furlongs on the grass, she does have a good work with respect to the clock on January 2nd. While given the lead going five she can pull back off quicker splits - an asset given WATCH THE CAT's propensity to lead. The field's lone closer is PRIZE EXHIBIT. PRIZE EXHIBIT is terribly of form, however. Her last podium finish came in a restricted stakes at Del Mar. But, she did win the Monrovia stakes over the hill a year ago and stands a factor if WATCH THIS CAT gets pushed on the front end.
#5 WATCH THIS CAT (3/1)
#2 PAPAQUITA COQUETA (2/1)
#4 PRIZE EXHIBIT (9/5)
Longshot: New year, new humorous comments. Same old short fields.
Race 7 -- G3 Sham Stakes -- One Mile on Dirt -- post time 3:30 pm PT
The Grade Three $100,000 Sham Stakes honors the 1973 Santa Derby winner who had the misfortune of running into Secretariat in each of his Triple Crown races yet serving as an excellent foil. The Sham Stakes serves as the first Southern California race in the sophomore season to offer Kentucky Derby points, with ten points to the winner and four to the second place finisher along with two to the third place finisher and one to the fourth place finisher. It is a Kentucky Derby prep, and by extension a Santa Anita Derby prep. Contested in February or March in its first decade of existence, it moved to its January position in 2011 and a year later took on the race's current distance of a two-turn mile. Prior to 2012, the Sham was at a mile and a sixteenth or a mile and an eighth. Although no horse has won both the Sham and the Kentucky Derby, Colonel John (2008) took down that year's Travers Stakes. Tapizar (2011) would later win the 2012 Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Goldencents (2013) won the 2013 and 2014 Breeders' Cup Dirt Miles. Midnight Hawk (2014), would be the G3 Illinois Derby runner-up for then part-owners connected to the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks.
Midnight Hawk takes the 2014 Sham Stakes.
This year's Sham Stakes see the familiar west coast players - Bob Baffert and Doug O'Neill - with Triple Crown Trail ready runners. We side with O'Neill on TERM OF ART, who should get enough pace to chase from the stretchouts and speed types. Winner last out of the washed-off G3 DeMille Stakes down at Del Mar, he lost all chance when compromised at the break in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile - his only time in this career he finished off the podium. Joe Talamo has the call for O'Neill and owner Calumet Farm. There's no Classic Empire in this bunch, and the flat mile was the distance he graduated at last fall. The first start was a good one for AMERICAN ANTHEM who won on debut at Del Mar last December. This is second time out so a progression could happen. But, he could be what Takaful was in the Jerome Stakes earlier in the week: already at his peak. Two turns won't be an issue given his breeding - by Bodemeister out of an A. P. Indy mare. GORMLEY projects the favorite in this event. Another whose Breeders' Cup juvenile that wants to be forgotten, he won on debut in September and then annexed the G1 FrontRunner over the Santa Anita strip going two turns first time out. The layoff may help this type, but so will having time to recover from the BC Juvenile. He's done all his work wire to wire, but he won't get a free lunch on the front end.
#2 TERM OF ART (5/1)
#1 AMERICAN ANTHEM (9/5)
#5 GORMLEY (8/5)
Longshot: Fans of the ornithological name plays or Peter Griffin dance moves may gravitate to #4 BIRD IS THE WORD, but we'll try a stretchout in this space with #7 BLABIMIR (12/1). This is the O'Neill "B" given that TERM OF ART is the A entrant. But the B entrant features the Reddam silks and Mario Guttierez piloting - the same humans on Nyquist last year. Winner in a maiden race last out, the Sham is his first try around two turns. But the maiden score at Los Alamitos last time is his only win photo. For BLABIMIR, a two turn mile may be this horse's game, being by (miler!) Tapizar out of a Quality Road (miler!) mare. --PM
Race 9 -- G2 San Gabriel Stakes -- One and one-eighth miles on turf -- post time 4:30 pm PT
Few races have had such a varied history as the San Gabriel Stakes. Named after the valley where Lucky Baldwin's ranch and the initial Santa Anita Park were nestled, the race began its life in 1935 as a three-furlong dirt dash for juveniles. It became a six-furlong sprint for the three-and-up set starting in 1945, became a seven-furlong sophomore sprint in 1952. In 1955, the race moved to the turf and stretched out to ten furlongs, then cut to its current nine-furlong trip in 1960.
Several winners of the San Gabriel Stakes have also won Illinois's richest horse race. As it turns out, both horses involved in the heart-pounding finish of the inaugural Arlington Million in 1981 won the San Gabriel Stakes during the course of their careers. John Henry won the race in January of 1980. The 50/1 outsider he nosed out in the Million, The Bart, won the San Gabriel in December of 1981. Star of Cozzene, who won the Million in 1993, also got his picture taken after the San Gabriel earlier that year.
John Henry gets up in time to win the 1980 San Gabriel Handicap.
The San Gabriel drew a field of twelve this year. Classy FLAMBOYANT goes for the repeat, and looks well set to pull it off. He has been acquitting himself okay in longer races through the last six months or so, but most of his better form has come going middle distances. This cut back to nine furlongs should help FLAMBOYANT, who has not run such a short distance since a good third behind Midnight Storm in July's Eddie Read (GII). He finished a fine third last out in the Hollywood Turf Cup (GII) behind Texas Ryano and Ashleyluvssugar, the reigning kings of the mile and a half category grass routes out west, suggesting he is in form. That was his first race off a short break, giving him room to improve here. FLAMBOYANT has shown the ability to fire into a moderately slow pace. That may prove useful here, as the field lacks one-way speed, and only BLUE TONE, A RED TIE DAY, and TWENTYTWENTYVISION show occasional front-end impetus. Finally, the switch back to Flavian Prat stands out for FLAMBOYANT. He ran well with Prat last year, and Prat hops off a live one in TWENTYTWENTYVISION to take the call on FLAMBOYANT.
RING WEEKEND is the class of this field, has a Grade I win over the course, and gets Drayden Van Dyke in the irons. Van Dyke does not ride Ring Weekend often, but gets good efforts out of him when he does. Though RING WEEKEND has done so much as a miler, he has been able to stretch out the extra furlong effectively. That includes a pair of graded stakes wins, and even when he was off the board in the Twilight Derby, he was not well beaten. RING WEEKEND has the tactical speed that he needs to do well here; though he rallies from off the pace, he does not need to be far away. RING WEEKEND will not be a price, but he should be in the frame against this competition.
TWENTYTWENTYVISION loses Flavian Prat to top choice FLAMBOYANT, but gets an excellent big-race rider in Mike Smith. He likes Santa Anita, with two wins and three more money finishes in seven starts over the course. He also has good form at the distance: in two tries, he has an allowance win and a Grade I placing. TWENTYTWENTYVISION has been on the shelf since October, but trainer Richard Mandella knows how to get a horse ready off a lay, and this horse has run excellent races from even longer layoffs than this. His best races are right in range with what he needs to win this, and he can run well from a forward placement, something this race's likely pace scenario may require.
#3 FLAMBOYANT (6/1)
#11 RING WEEKEND (5/2)
#9 TWENTYTWENTYVISION (4/1)
Longshot: #5 ITSINTHEPOST (10/1) gets a class test in the San Gabriel, as he notches up from the allowance ranks here. But, his form has been good. In nine tries over the Santa Anita grass he has a pair of wins and three more money finishes, and he has two wins and a second in four tries at the distance. Despite the class rise, ITSINTHEPOST fits speed-wise with his foes in the San Gabriel. And, the humans look good. He keeps regular rider Tyler Baze in the irons, and trainer Jeff Mullins has won with two of his first three starters at this winter's Santa Anita meet. -- NN
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