Racing happens throughout the nation on New Year’s Eve, but only one American track features graded stakes action: Santa Anita Park. So, Picks and Ponderings ventures back to the Great Race Place to preview Saturday’s stakes action there.
Sophomore turf fillies shine in the final Grade I of the year: the American Oaks, which had been run in May during the last two years, but now sends more mature three-year-olds its mile and a quarter trip. Older turf fillies and mares also get their spotlight in the Robert J. Frankel Stakes (GIII), named after the legendary trainer. Older open-company dirt sprinters also have their day in the Midnight Lute Stakes (GIII).
For an additional look at these races, Picks & Ponderngs‘s Paul Mazur will be on Capital OTB on Friday December 20th at 10:30 AM ET to discuss the New Year’s Eve stakes triple from Santa Anita.
On the local scene, December 31st is the closing day of the Hawthorne Fall meet. As such, all pools must be zeroed out and become mandatory payouts. Pools with Jackpot clauses (the Pick 6 and the Super High Five on the tenth race) waive their uniqueness rules and pay to the best ticket available regardless of quantity.
calracing.com 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 Robert J. Frankel Stakes and American Oaks are for turf only. All races detailed in this piece are scheduled for Saturday December 31st.
Updated on December 29th to include pre-scratch morning lines and Capital OTB airtimes.
Race 3 — G3 Midnight Lute Stakes — Six and one-half furlongs on dirt — post time 1:30pm PT
This race was first run on Veterans’ Day in 1981 as the National Sprint Championship Stakes at now-shuttered Hollywood Park. Given G3 status three years later, the six furlong race for sprinters was a fixture of Hollywood’s fall meet. In 1991 the race memorialized Vernon O. Underwood and became the Vernon O. Underwood Stakes. Underwood – when not presiding over a chain of spirits stores in Southern California – served on Hollywood Park’s Board of Directors for three decades. In 2014 the race moved to Santa Anita, added an extra half-furlong and became the Midnight Lute Stakes, honoring the two-time Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner. Locally based mare Meafara (1993) is among the notable winners.
This race was set to be a chance at redemption for Masochistic. But, Masochistic – who would be odds on against this field – wasn’t allowed to enter. So once again the sprinter finds himself as Exhibit A in racing’s fractious medication debate. Apparently, no one on the backside got the memo that Masochistic was a no-show, and only five see the starter. JIMMY BOUNCER and TOUGH SUNDAY scratched out of last week’s G3 San Simeon down the hill to try this race on the dirt for a hundred grand. JIMMY BOUNCER gets the call here. Brought to you the same humans that brought you 2016 Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist — owner Reddam Racing, trainer Doug O’ Neill, rider Mario Gutierrez — he draws a cozy outside post. His only bad showing at one turn came in the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, and three back he was on near-equal terms with Holy Lute before Holy Lute won a downhill G3. Since the layoff he’s been clicking along, as he won a Cal-bred stakes two back at Fresno. He is front speed, but he can pull back and sit and he has gameness on the engine. Such qualities put him over NAVY HYMN. He cuts back a half-furlong to this event, last seen going seven panels on the Breeders’ Cup undercard. He last won three back at Del Mar, but this space questions the passing ability as he’s needed to out front at all calls to win. Yet, in a short field of five, his speed will carry him along. Should JIMMY BOUNCER and NAVY HYMN fry each other on the front end, look to ST. JOE BAY. The connections have figured out he’s more likely an elongated sprinter as opposed to a two-turn miler, and last out he whistled in a twice-other-than at Del Mar at this race’s six and a half panels. He did his work on the inside downstate, and during the fall meet the oval was kinder to swing-wide types. Should he run back to that effort he makes sense, but beware his 7: 1-4-0 local record if using him on top.
#5 JIMMY BOUNCER (5/2)
#4 NAVY HYMN (5/2)
#3 ST. JOE BAY (9/5)
Longshot: The longshot writer tested positive for caffeine too close to publish time, and had to withdraw from this section on order of the Santa Anita stewards. –PM
Race 4 — G3 Robert J. Frankel Stakes — One and one-eighth miles on turf — post time 2:00pm PT
First run in 1968 as the San Gorgonio Handicap, the race’s first name took its name from the highest point in California. One trainer always seemed at the highest point with this race for filly and mare daisycutters, Robert J. Frankel. Frankel won this race eight times throughout his long and notable career, and had two Grade I-winning horses named in his honor: Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint winner Bobby’s Kitten and Juddmonte-owned and UK-based Frankel. Frankel’s trainees won upper-echelon races from Arcadia to Tokyo (and two Arlington Millions, just for good measure), with the trainer having a Hall of Fame induction while in his prime. The San Gorgonio was renamed to the Frankel for the 2011 running, about a year after his passing. Stakes namesakes like Paseana (1992), Megahertz (2004), and Wait A While (2008) were all heroines of this race.
Citronnade goes wire to wire in the 2007 San Gorgonio Handicap – the last of Robert Frankel’s record eight wins in the race that now bears his namesake.
At publish time the rail is set to twenty feet out for this race that carries G3 status and $100,000 of purse funds. There’s no Lady Eli or Queen’s Trust in this event, so Takaya Shimakawa’s RYANS CHARM is taking a drop in class. The rub on RYANS CHARM is that such class drop and her effort in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf put her on a fast course to favoritism. A G1 winner in South America, she goes second start North America. Rafael Bejerano gets the return call for conditioner Patrick Gallagher. Though there’s only a fifteen start sample, Gallagher has won three times and hit the board three more times in similar second-start situations. FRENZIFIED goes back to two turns in this event. Last out, she went a three-turn eleven furlongs on Turkey Day in the G3 Red Carpet, leading for two of the three turns setting slow splits (:49 3/5 for the half). We’re not keen on FRENZIFIED a lot given that she gave up the lead or that her last win came in a $75K stakes going three turns, but the cutback to two turns and the lack of other forward speed are what draw us to her. Maybe she won’t get as leg weary this time around. ARLES functions as a defensive use in this spot. Her two starts in North America were both second place finishes, but both came at three turns and ARLES makes this start around two. ARLES – whether overseas or in the States – has done her running at ten furlongs and beyond usually. Her two career wins are at ten furlongs. Perhaps the cutback and going start three of the form cycle are the keys to success, but she’s going to have to prove she’s more than a three-turn specialist.
#6 RYANS CHARM (4/1)
#3 FRENZIFIED (6/1)
#4 ARLES (5/2)
Longshot: Later on in the card, Santa Anita runs the G1 American Oaks for three-year-old female turfers. #1 SWEET CHARITY (6/1) is this field’s only three year-old. It speaks volumes that the connections of SWEET CHARITY – trainer John Sadler and owners Hronis Racing – bypass a race for three times the purse to get weight against elders. SWEET CHARITY goes first time North America, gets first time lasix too. The overseas form shows her as a minor stakes winner there, which makes her a snug fit for a G3 given the peculiar spotting. Just as choosy moms choose Jif, choosy trainers choose Mike Smith and Smith has the call here. –PM
Race 8 — G1 American Oaks — One and one-quarter miles on turf — post time 4:00 pm PT
This year marks the fifteenth running of the American Oaks. Instituted in 2002, it has always been a ten-furlong turf race for fillies and mares, and has held a Grade I ever since 2004. It was a July fixture at Hollywood park until the track closed in 2013. In 2014 and 2015 Santa Anita hosted the race in May; this year marks the first time it has been run in December instead.
One champion has won the American Oaks: Wait a While, who later beat older in the Yellow Ribbon (GI) en route to the Eclipse award for Champion Three Year Old Filly. Several American Oaks have also shown form at Arlington. Ticker Tape (2004) shipped out here two starts after her victory at Hollywood, and won the Pucker Up. The race’s first winner, Megahertz (2002), would finish second in the 2005 edition of the Beverly D Stakes (GI). Pure Clan (2008) won the Modesty Handicap (GIII) in 2009, and then finished third behind Dynaforce in the Beverly D.
Pure Clan fights to victory in the 2008 American Oaks. She would come to Arlington and win the Modesty the next year.
This year’s $300,000 American Oaks, the final Grade I of the year, drew a lively field of thirteen three-year-old fillies, and the rail will be set to zero. Most are trying a mile and a quarter for the first time, but a few have gone that distance already. The top selection here is not only a lightly-raced horse with room to improve, but also the only one in the field who has won going a mile and a quarter: New York invader SASSY LITTLE LILA. This is her first try in graded stakes company, but two starts back she cleared her N1X against older going a mile and a quarter at Belmont. That came on the front end, a place she may well be again given that this field lacks speed. But, should STAYS IN VEGAS, QUEEN BLOSSOM, or (perhaps unwisely) LADY VALEUR take the front-end initiative, SASSY LITTLE LILA has proven that she can sit just off the speed and still run well. The humans also speak well: conditioner Brad Cox wins at 24% with his shippers, and regular rider Luis Saez hops on the airplane. SASSY LITTLE LILA looks well placed, and she should be ready to get the distance.
LADY VALEUR won the washed-off Miss America Stakes at Golden Gate last out; she moves back from Tapeta to turf here. She has form over turf already, specifically at Santa Anita, as her other two career victories both came over that course. Unlike some others in this field, LADY VALEUR suggests that the stretch out to ten furlongs should help her. She has brought her best going a mile and an a eighth (her longest distance to date), and has solid stamina influences in her pedigree. The rail is a bit of a concern, as she set the pace and then faded in the Del Mar Oaks (GI) three starts back. But, she has other races in which she has been able to rate from the rail. Should rider Rafael Bejarano do that with her again, LADY VALEUR could get early run on a slow pace.
STAYS IN VEGAS impressed last out, finishing third beaten just a neck by Miss Temple City (a proper Grade I horse, and older!) last out in the Matriarch (GI). There, she led most of the way. However, she does not need to lead; she more typically rallies from a few lengths off the pace. This will be STAYS IN VEGAS’s first try going a mile and a quarter. But, she has a good third going nine furlongs, and there is plenty of precedent for City Zip babies with some stamina breeding underneath to get ten panels. She has some classy route blood on the dam side; her dam is half to Persistently, a classy dirt router despite being sired by sprinter Smoke Glacken. STAYS IN VEGAS has the class, speed, and tactical ability; she ought to factor here.
One brief note about QUEEN BLOSSOM, the first time American runner. Watch the board on her. She showed some early speed in her maiden win, and trainer Graham Motion tends to be sharp with long layoff runners as well as first-time United States runners. The first-time Lasix should also help. But, both of her tries at a mile and a quarter were downright dreadful. Perhaps she has grown into herself — she is a sophomore, after all, and seven months is a long time. But, particularly given her connections (Graham Motion, Joel Rosario, and syndicate owner Team Valor), QUEEN BLOSSOM may not present quite the value required to play her.
#6 SASSY LITTLE LILA (9/2)
#1 LADY VALEUR (15/1)
#2 STAYS IN VEGAS (7/2)
Longshot: #11 DYNAMIC MIZZES K (30/1) makes her graded stakes debut here, so the race will be a class test. She is an off-the-pace type, but showed last out that she can be a bit closer to the pace if need be. Her late pace is some of the best in the field, and she showed two starts back at a mile and an eighth at Santa Anita (against older!) that she can muster a sharp rally into a dawdling pace. It will be her first try going a mile and a quarter, but DYNAMIC MIZZES K handled nine panels well two back, and the breeding (Mizzen Mast out of a Dynaformer mare). The biggest question is the 0-4 record at Santa Anita. But, the three off-board finishes were earlier in her career. Her only recent tilt over the course was a close third (beaten just half a length) in that two-back allowance, suggesting the record does more to suggest she has improved than to suggest she hates the course. — NN
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