The Winter/Spring Meet at Santa Anita traditionally begins the day after Christmas, and this year is no exception. With the beginning of the new season come the final chances for three-year-olds to run against their own age group before being turned loose in the older horse divisions come January 1st. The opening day card features three graded stakes races, all restricted to three-year-olds. The Malibu Stakes (GI), seven furlongs on the dirt, is open to all three-year-olds; the La Brea Stakes (GI) is the three-year-old fillies’ complement at the same distance. For the grassy set, the Mathis Brothers Mile (GII) (née Sir Beaufort Stakes) sends three-year-olds a mile over the Santa Anita turf. All three races drew
Saturday, Picks and Ponderings heads back east. Paul Mazur takes a look at the three graded stakes races on the Gulfstream Park card for Saturday, headlined by the Grade III W. L. McKnight Handicap.
All races are scheduled for Friday, December 26. Selections for the Mathis Brothers Mile (GII) are made for turf only.
Race 6: La Brea Stakes (GI), three-year-old fillies, seven furlongs over the dirt, post time 2:47pm PST
2014 marks the 42nd renewal of the La Brea Stakes. The race was originally a 1 1/16 mile test, but was cut back to its current seven-furlong distance in 1978. Historically, this race has served as the beginning of a three-race series, which continued with the El Encino Stakes (GII) and culminated with the the La Canada Stakes (GII). The El Encino has not been run since 2011. However, the La Canada still exists: the only stakes race restricted to four-year-olds that remained on the Santa Anita schedule for this meet. It is scheduled for January 17, at 1 1/16 miles over the Santa Anita dirt. Notable winners of the La Brea over the years have included multiple graded stakes winner (and Storm Cat’s dam) Terlingua (1980), 1997 Beldame Stakes winner Hidden Lake (1996), and broodmare Hookedonthefeelin (1999) — who not only produced sprinter and stallion Jimmy Creed, but also another La Brea winner in Pussycat Doll (2005).
This year’s renewal of the La Brea stakes drew a field of ten fillies vying for a share of a $300,000 purse. The big question in this race revolves around TARIS: is she the freak she looked like in the Raven Run (GII) last time out, or is she going to bounce hard off that enormous effort? The lads at Coolmore seem to think she has unlimited potential; John Magnier and friends bought her for $2,350,000 at Fasig-Tipton November, and this is her first start for them and trainer Simon Callaghan. To date, this filly has done nothing wrong at one turn, and her two races this fall suggest she is likely the fastest filly of the bunch. Make no mistake about it: if she runs back to her performance at Keeneland, she crushes this field. Her works are sharp — and every work since the Raven Run has been at Santa Anita, suggesting she was pointing specifically here. Still, the 2/1 morning line seems wishful thinking at that best; if she goes off above even money after the monster Raven Run and then the monster auction buy, that seems a surprise. If there were any shortage of early speed in this race, singling TARIS and moving on would be a sound plan. However, there are plenty of early speed types in this race: STONETASTIC, AMARANTH, and AWESOME BABY all look likely to send forth and hassle TARIS early. All three of those runners have shown enough early zip in previous outings to suggest they can make it a dogfight early. There are reasons that none of them look likely to carry: seven furlongs looks a bit too long to be optimal for STONETASTIC, AMARANTH seems a bit short on class, and AWESOME BABY has not seen the starter since March. Still, with that much early zip combined with the short price on TARIS, a couple of upset contenders look strong. THANK YOU MARYLOU comes back here after a surprise third place finish at 39/1 odds in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (GI), a race against older and generally tougher company than this. Her recent speeds have been consistently sharp, and her stalking to mid-pack running style should suit a race with this much early speed. She did most of her works at the Breeders’ Cup at Gulfstream, but trainer Mike Maker shipped her out to Santa Anita in enough time to get re-acclimated and get a work in over the track. Her performances suggest she is a true seven-furlong horse, and the price on her should be attractive for one with this much upset potential. JOJO WARRIOR also stands a chance to upset this race. This Bob Baffert trainee makes her first start off a three-month lay; she has been on the shelf since a third-place finish behind Untapable in the Cotillion (GI). She cuts back to one turn here for a barn that wins at 25% in sprint races, and which has been five for its last 11 when cutting back from a route to a sprint in a graded stakes race. JOJO WARRIOR has shown early speed in her last three starts; that is not where she wants to be here against the likes of TARIS and company. However, her maiden win came from midpack, showing conclusively that she is no need-to-lead type. She has also shown that she can run well off a lay; she was second in her first career stakes attempt, which came off a seven-month lay, and won the Torrey Pines Stakes (GIII) off of a two-month lay. She has also shown an affinity for the Santa Anita dirt; her only attempt over it, in the Summertime Oaks (GII), resulted in a win.
#3 THANK YOU MARYLOU (6/1)
#10 JOJO WARRIOR (4/1)
#1 TARIS (2/1)
Longshot: With as much early speed as there is in this field, if a longer shot makes an impact, it looks likely to be one from off the pace. Enter #6 MORE COMPLEXITY (12/1). This California-bred has shown some versatility with respect to surface, having turned in good efforts on grass, poly, and dirt. Still, it has been a long time since she tried dirt: she tried it three times as a maiden, finishing second, third, and fourth. This looks like the perfect time to try it again: the light is on, and last out she dispatched with older in a Cal-bred stakes going this same seven-furlong distance on the Del Mar main. That maiden-breaker started a still-going streak in which she has won four of her last five. Pacewise, she should be able to get a good stalking spot, in touch with the early pace but out of a potentially tiring and futile front-end fight. She will probably have to take a step forward speed-wise to win this race, but as honest as she is (on the board in seven out of ten starts), she stands a strong chance to at least put more complexity into intra-race exotics.
Race 7: Mathis Brothers Mile (GII), three-year-olds, one mile over the turf, post time 3:20pm PST
This race, a turf mile for three-year-olds, will be run for the fifteenth time this year. It was inaugurated as the Sir Beaufort Stakes in 2000, and run under that name through last year. Sir Beaufort, the race’s original namesake, was a curious namesake for a turf race. The Charlie Whittingham trainee won three graded stakes, including the Big ‘Cap in 1993, but all those graded wins came on dirt. This year, it was renamed as part of a marketing plan between Santa Anita and Mathis Brothers Furniture. To date, the most accomplished winner of this race was its 2008 winner, Gio Ponti. He proceeded to win Eclipse Awards for Champion Grass Horse in 2009 and 2010, as well as Champion Older Horse in 2009. He acquitted himself very well in the Chicago area: he won the Arlington Million (GI) in 2009, and was second in both 2010 and 2011. 2002 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and Eclipse Champion Sprinter Orientate, who is most noted for his work on dirt, also won the Sir Beaufort in 2001.
The Mathis Brothers Mile, with its $200,000 purse, drew a full field: twelve primary entries, plus two on the also-eligible list. After destroying a maiden special weight over the Arlington main last summer, HEART TO HEART spent the rest of his juvenile year as a somewhat useful polytrack horse in the Michael Stidham barn. At three, he resurfaced in the Brian Lynch barn, started running on the grass, and proved to be more than just useful. He crushed an allowance field at Keeneland in his grass debut, and is a perfect three-for-three at a mile on turf. He does seem a need-to-lead type, but has never been tested on the front end in a turf race. This race may be that first test, with both RED OUTLAW and SAWYER’S HILL having shown some penchant for being on the front end. Still, both of those may possibly rate, and HEART TO HEART has won his previous firm-turf races easily enough to suggest there is more in the tank. The only blemish on his turf record was a third-place finish going nine furlongs over good going, but the cutback to a mile (from 1 1/16 last out) and the likely firm turf should set up for HEART TO HEART to run in top form. Finally, trainer Lynch’s win percentage with shippers — a robust 23% — suggests he means business. LONG ON VALUE comes into this race off a two-month breather. Last out, he came charging late to score over lone speed SAWYER’S HILL in the Twilight Derby (GII), going a mile and an eighth over this Santa Anita grass. His speeds fit the field well, and even though he is an off-pace type, he is not a from-the-clouds type either. After a long string of close-but-no-cigar finishes, it seems he has put it together; LONG ON VALUE enters this race on a two-win streak. The cutback to a mile should serve him well; he has been first and second in his two tries at the distance. If HEART TO HEART gets to walk the dog, he has shown on several occasions that he can attack late; in addition to the Twilight Derby win, LONG ON VALUE was also a respectable second after multiple graded stakes winner Istanford walked the dog in the Arlington Classic (GIII). Finally, he has also shown an ability to run well from outside. He drew the 10 post here, but won the Twilight Derby from the 9 hole. Stalking a bit closer to the pace should be one more contender here, ALERT BAY. Though he rides a streak of three straight stakes wins on dirt into this race, he is no newcomer to the green stuff. He broke his maiden in February at a mile over the Santa Anita grass, and has twice placed in stakes over the grass. All three of those starts came with Tyler Baze in the irons, who returns today. His recent speeds have been strong for the field; though they have been on dirt, his stalking style suits the likely race shape well enough to make it worth betting that he is a stronger horse now than he was when he last tried turf. One final runner who merits a brief mention is TALCO. He fits with this field class-wise, and has the speed and class to hit the board in this race. He also showed some aptitude at a mile across the pond, with a win and two seconds in four starts. However, it seems unlikely that he will have quite enough pace to attack here. Lower rungs of trifectas or superfectas would be incomplete without TALCO, but winning seems a tall order.
#7 HEART TO HEART (5/2)
#10 LONG ON VALUE (5/1)
#4 ALERT BAY (6/1)
Longshot: Trainer Mike Puype does not always run horses in graded stakes races, but when he does, they tend to run quite well. In his last forty graded stakes starts, he has won twelve times, and hit the board twenty times. Enter #11 AWESOME RETURN (10/1). He has been a dependable runnier on the California-bred turf circuit. He has racked up three turf stakes wins against Cal-bred three-year-olds, two of them at this distance. In seven career starts on turf he has four wins, and has hit the board the other three times. Though he will need to improve to win against this field, he has been showing the sort of consistent, gradual improvement in his last few starts that suggests he could rise to the occasion. Though he has won most of his races from the clouds, which would not likely behoove him here unless HEART TO HEART gets far more early pressure than expected, he has run well enough from just a few lengths off the pace to suggest that he can adapt here.
Race 8: Malibu Stakes (GI), three-year-olds, seven furlongs over the dirt, post time 3:52pm PST
This year marks the 63rd running of the 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; neither the Strub (GII) nor the San Fernando (GII) are on the Santa Anita schedule this year. 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).
This year’s Malibu Stakes carries a $300,000 purse, and drew a field of ten. In a sense, this race is clash of two titans: last year’s champion two-year-old SHARED BELIEF versus trainer Bob Baffert, who sends four of the ten contenders to the post. The rematch with Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern will have to wait, but the Baffert brigade still includes some pretty solid runners: CHITU, INDIANAPOLIS, MIDNIGHT HAWK, and PIMPERNEL. Even so, the race is still SHARED BELIEF’s to lose. Period. He drops in class, down to straight three-year-old company after three straight Grade I races against older. Though he is still likely a better horse on synthetic surfaces than he is on the dirt, he can still put up dirt speeds that put to shame what the rest of this field has shown to date. He typically comes from a stalking or midpack place: perfect, given the frontrunning tendencies of CHITU, PIMPERNEL, MIDNIGHT HAWK, and possibly even DIAMOND BACHELOR. He has been working well leading into the race, and gets Santa Anita’s big-money rider Mike Smith back in the irons. He can win by open lengths, or he can gut it out like he did in the Awesome Again (GI) two starts back. Unless MIDNIGHT HAWK breaks as sharply outward as Bayern did inward in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, something will have to go seriously wrong for SHARED BELIEF not to win this race. Along the lines of potential spoilers, two stand out: PIMPERNEL and CHITU. PIMPERNEL tries graded company for the first time here, and races for only the second time since summer. Last out, he held off late-charging Hoppertunity by half a length in an allowance. Though Hoppertunity was first off of a lay of almost seven months, he validated that he was on the right track with his next-out Clark (GI) win. What stands out about PIMPERNEL’s running style is that he does his best work when pressing the pace. He should be fast enough to get near the front, and should feed on keeping CHITU and MIDNIGHT HAWK honest. Furthermore, it speaks well that as many Baffert horses are there are in this race — and as many of them as Martin Garcia has ridden in the past — Garcia ends up on PIMPERNEL. This “Baffert D” will doubtless be a price with all the more ballyhooed runners in the field, and stands just as good a chance as any of them on one of his better days. Finally, CHITU demands respect. Last out, in his first start since finishing ninth in the Kentucky Derby (GI), he scored convincingly over older in the Damascus Stakes — a race run at seven furlongs over the Santa Anita dirt, just like this one. He has seen success either setting the pace or pressing it, and is a perfect three-for-three going one turn. He gets rider Joel Rosario back from that Damascus run two months ago, a good sign. Finally, this race is second off the layoff for him — if he improves over that last effort, and can prevail in the fight for speed, a chance remains that he could give SHARED BELIEF a run for his money. He will not be the price of stablemate PIMPERNEL, but his seven-furlong prowess and the potential to improve second off the lay make him plenty legitimate here.
#8 SHARED BELIEF (4/5)
#5 PIMPERNEL (10/1)
#2 CHITU (4/1)
Longshot: This was a close decision, but #1 CONQUEST TWO STEP (15/1) gets the slight nod over TAMARANDO. Though TAMARANDO has never raced particularly badly on the dirt (he has a second and two thirds in his three dirt attempts), the flat attempt over his preferred synthetic surface last out was a red flag, and it is hard to trust him here. Instead, look to the other runner who typically does not run over dirt, but has shown a bit of form — and better general recent form. CONQUEST TWO STEP broke his maiden going five and a half panels over the Churchill main last year, showing some ability to handle dirt. He won last out; though it was against allowance optional company going down the hill, he showed the ability to come from off the pace and gut out a win. He should be out of the likely early pace battle, and yet should also be able to stalk closely enough to the pace to not be totally out of it if forward placings end up being key. Though he has been on the shelf for two months, trainer Mark Casse is still a respectable 17% off of similar length lays, and CONQUEST TWO STEP has been working long as he prepares for this. Finally, Casse and rider Joe Talamo have won all four of their last starts together, for a +$17.80 ROI. This pair will be a price again here, and will be worth at least a flyer.
Photograph by Nicolle Neulist.
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