This week, with Thoroughbred racing in Chicago on hiatus until March, Picks and Ponderings turns its attention to big races across the country. This week, we look at Santa Anita. Saturday’s card at the Great Race Place features a pair of stakes races. One of them, the Sham Stakes, is the lone Kentucky Derby prep race of the weekend. The other, the San Pasqual, is a dirt route for older horses. By all accounts the day’s feature, the San Pasqual features the return of 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, who has not seen the starter since finishing second in the Dubai World Cup last March.
Morning line odds were not available at original publish time. All races discussed are scheduled for Saturday January 9th. Authors of stakes previews are noted by initials after each: PM for Paul Mazur and NN for Nicolle Neulist.
Edited on January 7 to add morning line odds. Edited on January 9 in light of the scratch of DRESSED IN HERMES from the Sham.
Santa Anita — Race 6 — G3 Sham Stakes — One Mile on Dirt — post time 3:00 pm PT
Arlington Park has a Grade I turf race named after the hero of the 1973 Triple Crown series. Santa Anita, on the other hand, has a Grade III dirt race — an early-stage Derby prep — named after that year’s perpetual bridesmaid. Perhaps if Sham were born in any other year, we may be saying his name in the same breath as Sir Barton and Assault and American Pharoah. As it stands, he will forever be known as Secretariat’s foil. Sham spent a good portion of his Derby prep season out west, winning both the Santa Catalina (now the Robert B. Lewis) as well as the Santa Anita Derby in 1973.
The Sham Stakes has been run since 2001, and has been a Grade III since 2006. The race was originally run at a mile and an eighth on dirt, but was contested on the Santa Anita synthetic track from 2008 to 2010. In 2011 it was moved back to dirt and shortened to 1 1/16 miles; since 2012 it has been run at its current distance of a flat mile. So far, two horses have won both the Sham Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby (GI): Colonel John (2005) and Goldencents (2013). The race has produced two eventual Breeders’ Cup winners, both in the Dirt Mile: Goldencents won the Dirt Mile in 2013 and 2014, and Tapizar (2011) won the Dirt Mile the following year. Of local interest, 2014 winner Midnight Hawk — a horse co-owned by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville — finished second in the Illinois Derby (GIII) that spring.
Midnight Hawk outclasses Kristo in the 2014 Sham Stakes.
While the likes of Nyquist, Swipe, Mor Spirit, and Toews on Ice catch a breather before the big races begin, nine horses line up in the Sham for their piece of a $100,000 purse — and 10-4-2-1 Road to the Kentucky Derby points — in this one-mile affair. This year’s field has a sort of “Island of Misfit Toys” feel to it. The race drew a few of the dirt horses who have not been quite up to snuff compared to the top echelon of the west coast sophomore division — and a few others who have been focusing on the green stuff, and are trying this softer spot to see how they fare on dirt.
The closest things that this field has to proven dirt horses have enough questions to make them unattractive at the likely short odds. FOUND MONEY has been solid in Cal-bred company, but races like the Best Pal and the Delta Jackpot have proven just a bit too much for him. Perhaps the move back to Santa Anita helps, since FOUND MONEY won a pair of sprints there early in his career, but he is a defensive use at best. SEMPER FORTIS, FOUND MONEY’s stablemate in the Doug O’Neill barn, has won his last two — a point in his favour. Still, he loses his regular rider to a 1-83 pilot last year, and was dreadful in his one attempt against maiden special weight company at Santa Anita. I’MALREADYTHERE had Tyler Baze in the irons for his last two starts, including a third-place finish in the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI). He loses Baze to maiden LAOBAN — and though new rider Rafael Bejarano is no slouch, Bejarano and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer have been out of the money in their last six. I’MALREADYTHERE may get a share on class, but he has no compelling reason to suggest that he will break his streak of finishing underneath here.
Okay, enough about pointing out the the flaws in the Sham runners, enough shooting fish in a barrel. Who does appeal here?
LET’S MEET IN RIO graduated last out in a maiden special at Los Al. It was his first try at a mile, and he returns to that flat mile distance today, with the same jockey (Kent Desormeaux) in the irons. He also runs for trainer Bob Baffert — a 30% winner with his last-out maiden winners, making “the light is on” a good angle to use with his runners. He should be a solid price, too, as he is the Baffert B. COLLECTED, the Baffert A, should be relatively close to the pace, along with LAOBAN, and possibly either FOUND MONEY or I’MALREADYTHERE. There should be some speed for LET’S MEET IN RIO to run down late, and he has shown some of the strongest late pace of the group. This Juddmonte homebred should be one of the better prices among the more proven dirt horses in the field, and has every reason to show the form he needs to win.
Also interesting is turf-to-dirt shifter RARE CANDY. RARE CANDY was third in that DeMille, three lengths behind DRESSED IN HERMES (a horse who himself entered as a strong contender in the Sham, but has scratched). Still, that was RARE CANDY’s first race in two months, so he could improve here second off the lay. His only dirt try came two starts back — in the FrontRunner (GI). He was fourth, only half a length out of third, but those top two horses were Nyquist and Swipe. They franked that form by finishing 1-2 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and so far outclass anyone RARE CANDY sees here. This colt his half to two dirt winners, making him worth another shot. In terms of pace, he broke his maiden on the lead, but has some back form in which he finished in the frame from a few lengths off. The addition of blinkers here suggest he will be a bit more forwardly placed, but if Joe Talamo can sit him just off the front end, he should get in the frame at a good price.
LAOBAN is still a maiden. Still, at what will almost certainly be the longest price in the field, there is enough to like to figure this entry is more than just the interesting results of some Eric Guillot voodoo. Last out, LAOBAN was harangued on the lead for most of the way and set cracking fractions for a mile race: 23 for the quarter, 46.1 for the half. He still held on well, all things considered — only succumbing to a late rally by LET’S MEET IN RIO, who returns here in the Sham. Still, FOUND MONEY has been an off-pace type in his last few races, and even COLLECTED tried sitting off the pace last time out. If both of them sit back, or if Santa Anita is a speedway, LAOBAN may take the controlling role in a game of catch-me-if-you-can. It may also rain on Saturday. Muddy tracks can play well toward speed — and being out of a Speightstown mare, LAOBAN has every right to like an off track. Also intriguing is the fact that Tyler Baze gets the call on LAOBAN. Baze has been aboard for both of his previous races — but he was also aboard for I’MALREADYTHERE’s last two starts. He shows up on LAOBAN — which stands out, since I’MALREADYTHERE rallied so nicely for third behind Mor Spirit and Toews On Ice in the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI) last out.
#3 LET’S MEET IN RIO (6/1)
#1 RARE CANDY (6/1)
#6 LAOBAN (15/1)
Longshot: Between the scratch of DRESSED IN HERMES and the plethora of questionable chalk, the longshot writer has been promoted to the big time today. — NN
Santa Anita — Race 8 — G2 San Pasqual Stakes — One and one-sixteenth miles on Dirt — post time 4:00 pm PT
First run in 1935 but suspended due to the Second World War, the Grade Two, $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes functions as the first of the informal series of races for those aged four and up in the open handicap division leading to the Santa Anita Handicap in early Spring – the Big Cap, if you will. This Big Cap feeder settled into its current eight and a half dirt furlong trip in 1945 (though there is an outlying turf renewal in 1955 and the Pro-Ride years). Among the notable winners of the San Pasqual are Hall of Famers Native Diver (1966), Ack Ack (1971), and Ancient Title (1978) — all three who have or had stakes named for them in Southern California. Though without a stakes nameplate but enshrined in racing’s Hall of Fame is another San Pasqual winner – Silver Charm (1999).
Silver Charm moves steadily on the turn and pulls away to win the 1999 San Pasqual Handicap. It would be his last career victory. Video courtesy Youtube.
What Runhappy proved when winning the Malibu Stakes on Opening Day is that The Story Still Matters in horse racing. Sure, American Pharoah gave racing its long-awaited Triple Crown winner. And horse racing Twitter lost its collective marbles when Sports Illustrated snubbed it for its Athlete of the Year. But the Mattress Mac-Wohlers-Borell triangle made the Malibu into popcorn-worthy television. Had Runhappy come from a more steady and low-profile barn, the Malibu wouldn’t have its luster.
Which brings us to the curious case of CALIFORNIA CHROME.
For while CALIFORNIA CHROME has an excellent story (it helps when one of your owners just opens his mouth and words fall out, coupled with the quiet trainer), the fact remains the last time CHROME won you were eating Thanksgiving leftovers and watching him win the Hollywood Derby. In 2014. His last dirt win was the 2014 Preakness. But CALIFORNIA CHROME got beat on the square by Shared Belief in last year’s G2 San Antonio and the connections decided to go barnstorming and turfing, a way to play duck-duck-race while also looking sporting. The plan backfired in the absolute worst way; Shared Belief was injured in the G2 Charles Town Classic, California Chrome hasn’t started since a Dubai World Cup runner-up finish, and the Internet Meme Factory turned Chrome’s disappearance into comedy – the Chrome Come Home group being portrayed as zealots. Back stateside, the Southern California handicap division disintegrated and now CALIFORNIA CHROME finds himself first off the layoff after training over at Los Alamitos against seven others. Should CHROME – who will be odds on with Victor Espinoza to pilot for Art Sherman – be the same then his back class should triumph. He was good enough to be a square second in the San Antonio last year, good enough to turf, good enough to ship to Meydan. He doesn’t need the lead (though he’ll take it if no one wants it) and showed he can press. HOPPERTUNITY returns to the scene of his last win – last year. His last victory was the 2014 San Pasqual, and when stepped up against Shared Belief and CHROME, he was a well beaten third. The speed figures have flatlined and the performances point to a horse that’s plateaued at this point, and maybe he’s even got some hang to him based on Keeneland. Still, he does like this oval (8: 2-4-1 record), is well suited for mile category races, and does have a recent bullet work. There should be enough pace in his court with MYSTERY TRAIN and ALFA BIRD that he will get a target to to chase. POINT PIPER is the new face in the crowd, and that’s not a bad thing considering the way the SoCal Handicap Group was in 2014. POINT PIPER chased around Dortmund (who everyone seems to have wanted in this spot) last time and then shipped to Zia for a six-figure stakes and was on the wrong side of a photo. Winner of a listed stakes at Del Mar four back, he’s someone worth considering if the rainy season and El Nino are at full strength and the track turns sloppy. He also is worth considering given that MYSTERY TRAIN is one-way speed and if anyone goes with him early, a duel ensues and the speed comes back to him.
#4 CALIFORNIA CHROME (4/5)
#5 HOPPERTUNITY (5/2)
#3 POINT PIPER (10/1)
Longshot: If Chromie is not your homie, you’ll find solace in this space. CHROME may be the class of the field, but he’s no checkmark winner if he hasn’t progressed against elders or he needs a race to return to form. While MYSTERY TRAIN is one-way speed, the speed that could challenge him up front is #1 ALFA BIRD (20/1), rail drawn with Tyler Baze to ride for Victor Garcia. He goes second off the layoff after duling on the lead last time in a two-other-than at Los Alamitos. Last year he was second-to-last in that fabled Shared Belief-CALIFORNIA CHROME-HOPPERTUNITY San Antonio. He does have some gameness (at least more than MYSTERY TRAIN), and is the speed that could hang around longer than people anticipate. Odds on him, given the presence of CHROMIES, will more than justify a flutter. — PM
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