Southern California horse racing gets back underway at Santa Anita Park on Wednesday, December 26, after a ten-day break.
The card features five stakes races, including the pair of Grade 1 races for three-year-olds that have become the cornerstone of Santa Anita's December opening day. The pair of top-level races includes the Malibu, a seven-furlong sprint for open three-year-olds, as well as the La Brea, the fillies' complement at the same distance. We preview both Grade 1 races in detail.
In a grid below, we also provide picks for the other three stakes races on the card. Two are familiar to the Santa Anita opening day card: the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes for the handicap division and the Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile for open sophomore lawnmowers. This year also features a new race, the Lady of Shamrock Stakes, a turf mile for sophomore fillies.
Selections for the Lady of Shamrock Stakes and the Mathis Brothers Mile are made for turf only.
Race 6: La Brea Stakes (G1), three-year-old fillies, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 2:15pm PST
The $300,000 La Brea Stakes will be contested for the 46th time this year. The race was inaugurated as a 1 1/16 mile test in 1976, but dialed back to its current seven-furlong distance in 1978. Historically, this race served as the beginning of a three-race series, continuing with the El Encino Stakes (G2) and concluding with the the La Canada Stakes (G2). It was fillies' equivalent of the Strub Series, but like the Strub, it is for all practical purposes defunct. The El Encino, once the second race in that series, has not been run since 2011. The La Canada still exists, but since 2016 it has been a four-and-up race, not a four-year-old race. Notable winners of the La Brea over the years have included Los Alamitos stakes namesake Great Lady M. (1979), multiple graded stakes winner (and Storm Cat's dam) Terlingua (1980), and 1997 Beldame Stakes winner Hidden Lake (1996). Hookedonthefeelin (1999) won this race, and also distinguished herself in the breeding shed -- she produced another La Brea winner in Pussycat Doll (2005), as well as 2012 Malibu Stakes (G1) winner Jimmy Creed. Last year's La Brea Stakes was the first top-level score for a filly who had been a star for over a year before she finally proved herself at the top level: Unique Bella.
Unique Bella outslugs Paradise Woods to prevail in the 2017 La Brea Stakes.
Eight others line up next to DREAM TREE, to attempt to sully her undefeated record, but it seems unlikely that any of them will. Though DREAM TREE has had some layoffs this year -- one between February and September, and another from September until now -- when she has been right to race, no filly nor any situation has been able to conquer her. DREAM TREE can dig in gamely after a front-end battle, or patiently stalk the pace and sweep past. (Expect the latter, with HAPPY LIKE A FOOL, MO SEE CAL, HOT AUTUMN, and perhaps HEAVENHASMYNIKKI likely to go.) She can handle the Santa Anita footing, and she can handle seven and a half. Though she has some decent foes, and even a couple of improving foes, none have anything impressive or intriguing enough to convince me that trying to beat DREAM TREE would be anything but being cute for cute's sake. She won't be her 8/5 morning line -- the neighbourhood of 3/5 or 4/5 seems more likely -- but she looks like a single.
SPICED PERFECTION gets a class test for this. She has been gaining her experience in the California-bred stakes ranks all year long, and won the seven-furlong Betty Grable last time out. She has found her sea legs sprinting with blinkers on this fall, and unlike some horses after the addition of blinkers, she has reliably shown the ability to rate and rally even with the addition of that equipment. That style should serve SPICED PERFECTION well today. It's also a positive to see her keep Flavien Prat in the irons; Prat rode her to victory in the Betty Grable, and it would be good to see him try to carve out the same kind of trip in this. The La Brea is a class test for SPICED PERFECTION, and she will need a step forward to topple DREAM TREE. But, if she can run back to her better races, she has every right to be in the picture.
Trainer Bob Baffert does send the top choice out, but that's not his only credible horse in the La Brea. He enters two, the other being the lightly-raced EMBOLDENED. All three of her starts have come over the Santa Anita dirt, and one of them came over the same seven-furlong trip as the Malibu. Though she wired her maiden victory, perhaps she did that on class alone -- in the Angel's Flight, she proved she could settle well off the pace and come running late, which (barring a major speed bias) should prove a more advantageous trip in the La Brea. The biggest question with EMBOLDENED is the layoff, since she has not raced since May. But, trainer Bob Baffert is as good as anyone at getting horses ready to fire first off the bench, and EMBOLDENED has exactly the long, consistent worktab that suggests she should be ready to go.
#5 DREAM TREE (8/5)
#9 SPICED PERFECTION (5/1)
#4 EMBOLDENED (5/1)
Longshot: #8 CATHEDRAL READER (12/1) ships out for trainer Dallas Stewart. She cedes stakes experience to many of her foes, as her only stakes try was a comprehensive walloping by DREAM TREE in the Prioress (G2) in September. But, since then, CATHEDRAL READER has turned the corner. Rider Brian Hernandez has paired with her in her last three starts, and they have worked well together. CATHEDRAL READER has also shown some aptitude at an extended one-turn trip: she finished second in a six-and-a-half-furlong N1X against older and Churchill this fall, and won a seven-furlong N1X at Keeneland, also against older. CATHEDRAL READER will have to take another step forward to take this out -- especially if DREAM TREE brings her best game -- but this improving daughter of Shackleford should bring some value to the exotics no matter what.
Race 9: Malibu Stakes (G1), three-year-olds, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 4:00pm PST
This year marks the 67th running of the $300,000 Malibu Stakes, a race inaugurated at Santa Anita in 1952 as the Malibu Sequet Stakes, and changed to its current name in 1958. For many years, it was the first in a series of three races which culminated in the Strub Stakes, a race restricted to four-year-olds and run in early February. However, the Strub Series is history; both the Strub (G2) nor the San Fernando (G2) disappeared from the calendar in 2015. The Malibu alone remains. Only two Kentucky Derby winners have proceeded to win the Malibu: Spectacular Bid (1980) and Ferdinand (1986). Still, winners of the Malibu Stakes over the years have included multiple Hall of Fame inductees: pivotal sire Round Table (1957), California hero Native Diver (1962), four-time Arlington Park stakes winner (and five-time Eclipse award winner) Buckpasser (1966), 1967 Preakness winner Damascus (1968), and former Santa Anita Sprint Championship namesake Ancient Title (1974). The race's winners have sparkled in recent years. In 2014 Shared Belief, already proven at the Classic distance of a mile and a quarter, shortened up to win the Malibu. The next year Runhappy followed his victory in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) up with a romp in the Malibu. Runhappy would be named the year's champion sprinter. Last year's Malibu was the graded stakes debut of City of Light: a colt who would go on to race at the top level all this year. He concluded his four-year-old campaign with a score in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) in November, and is pointing toward the 2019 Pegasus World Cup (G1) before retiring to stud.
City of Light goes from untested in stakes company to Grade 1 winner in 1:21.21, the time it took him to run the 2017 Malibu Stakes.
This year's Malibu Stakes drew an overflow field: fourteen, plus two on the also-eligible list. The size may be remarkably large, but the mix of horses it drew is par for the course. As we have come to expect, the race is a melange of class route horses trying to shorten up for one last try against their age group, proven sprinters, and emerging runners who are just now beginning to grow into their best.
I'm a serious believer in seven-furlong horses for seven-furlong races, and KANTHAKA and SEVEN TRUMPETS have both impressed me as seven-furlong horses. My hat goes off to West Point Thoroughbreds for putting them both in here -- instead of sending one here and one to a less suitable spot, they send each to a spot that hits them right between the eyes.
SEVEN TRUMPETS has done a little bit of everything this year. But, after some stop-and-start efforts on the Triple Crown trail, he settled into better form going shorter. Though he hasn't won since a sloppy allowance in late May at Churchill, he has finished in the money in a handful of one-turn graded stakes from six furlongs to a mile. He was second in the one-mile Dwyer (G3), second again in the H. Allen Jerkens (G1), and third in the Gallant Bob (G3). The best of those efforts was his outing in the seven-furlong Jerkens. SEVEN TRUMPETS sat off the pace, though didn't have to drop to the clouds, he rallied well, and finished second beaten a length and a quarter. The only horse he failed to reel in was an absolute monster: Promises Fulfilled, who he won't have to face today. The Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile was a bit of a concern -- but it was his first try against older, and perhaps a little long for him. Between the return to three-year-olds and the cut back to seven furlongs, SEVEN TRUMPETS has upside to find his best again. His best puts him in the figure at what will doubtless be a square price.
SEVEN TRUMPETS gets the slight edge over KANTHAKA due to recency and likely odds, but it was a close call. KANTHAKA hasn't raced since May, but hails from the barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. He is the sort of trainer who wouldn't put his horse in a Grade 1 first off the lay unless he was ready to fire. The racetrack is no question; all three of his victories not only came at seven furlongs, but over the Santa Anita track. The son of 2012 Malibu Stakes winner Jimmy Creed has also shown solid versatility from a pace perspective: he has been able to win from well off the pace, but sat a bit closer when he had to do so in the Laz Barrera (G3). As long as Flavien Prat can carve out a trip from the wide post, KANTHAKA should be ready to do his best running late: with CALEXMAN, COPPER BULLET, NERO, and even BOBBY'S WICKED ONE, AX MAN and GREYVITOS showing some sprint speed, he should get enough in front of him for his closing style to shine.
Of course, we can't talk about this year's Malibu -- or, most any three-year-old race in California -- without talking about Bob Baffert's shedrow. The white-haired one entered five in the Malibu: NERO, AX MAN, MCKINZIE, and SOLOMINI in the main field, plus SUPER SOL on the also-eligible list. NERO returned with a nice allowance-optional victory when resuming in November, and the distance suits, but the pace may prove his undoing unless there's a heavy speed bias. MCKINZIE may be better going a little longer, and SOLOMINI also may. Both are mired on the far outside, to boot. Among the Baffert set, it's AX MAN who appeals the most. The form at the distance is the looming question, but he has shown some guts on the front end, and even some ability to sit just off the pace -- a must for a forwardly placed horse in a race with so much speed in it. AX MAN also runs incredibly well when fresh off the bench. He hasn't raced since July at Los Alamitos, but he has a long, consistent worktab leading into the race. Those factors make him appeal most among the slew of Baffert runners in the Malibu.
#7 SEVEN TRUMPETS (12/1)
#12 KANTHAKA (6/1)
#9 AX MAN (5/1)
Longshot: #4 STILL HAVING FUN (20/1) has not been the most consistent horse in the sophomore sprint set, but fires often enough to be worth a shot at the price. The son of Old Fashioned does tend to find his best form over extended one-turn trips, and has seven-furlong stakes wins in the Frank Whiteley at Laurel as well as the Woody Stephens (G2) at Belmont. With several speeds like
Below is a spreadsheet with all of Nicolle Neulist's picks for Wednesday's stakes races at Santa Anita Park; for any browsers that have difficulty with embedded Google Docs content, a web link is available here.
This will be updated as they finish handicapping the card. If you have questions about the logic behind any of these picks, please leave a comment, or tweet us at @picksponderings!
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