After a quiet week and a half in Southern California, the Santa Anita winter meet opens up on Tuesday, December 26 at Santa Anita. The opening day card features a four-pack of stakes: opening-day mainstays the Malibu Stakes (G1), La Brea Stakes (G1), and Mathis Brothers Mile (G2) for sophomores, as well as the newly moved San Antonio Stakes (G2) for the handicap division.
Here, Picks and Ponderings looks at all four of these stakes races in detail.
Updated December 26 for the scratch of Top of the Game from the San Antonio.
Tuesday, December 26 – Santa Anita Park
Race 3: San Antonio Stakes (G2), three-year-olds and up, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 1:04pm PST
The San Antonio Stakes (G2), a $300,000 race which will be run for the 80th time this year, has gotten a makeover in recent years. As of the running this past February it has been cut from a mile and an eighth to a mile and a sixteenth, and it has now been moved from February to opening day of the meet, to give West Coast handicap horses a local tune-up before the Pegasus World Cup next month. The San Antonio winners’ roll features several Hall of Fame handicap horses: Seabiscuit (1940), Round Table (1958), Gun Bow (1964, 1965), and Ack Ack (1971) all count it among their victories. In recent times, even, its winners’ list includes some of the best of the handicap division from this decade: Game On Dude (2012, 2013), Shared Belief (2015), and HOPPERTUNITY (2016, 2017). From a more local standpoint, familiar Illinois owner Quarter B Farm (of Buck’s Boy fame) took home the San Antonio in 1991 with Farma Way.
Shared Belief cruises past California Chrome in the 2015 San Antonio.
COLLECTED is using this for his final preparation for next month’s Pegasus World Cup, and the fastest horse in the field will be tough to conquer here. Yes, he’s a front-end horse where the front end won’t be obviously easy, as PRIME ATTRACTION and even ACCELERATE have shown sharp early speed, and GIANT EXPECTATIONS has enough form sprinting to suggest he may try to be prominent early. But, COLLECTED has the sharpest early speed, the ability to prevail in a front-end fight, and the smart outside draw. COLLECTED will be a heavy favourite, but it’s hard to want to oppose him here, and Picks and Ponderings won’t get cute for cute’s sake.
HOPPERTUNITY goes for the three-peat here. It’s a tough ask, both because of stablemate COLLECTED’s fine form and because he is a closer in such a short field. But, he has three wins in six tries going a mile and a sixteenth, and a dependable 14: 4-5-2 line over the Santa Anita main. His best compares well with everyone but COLLECTED’s best, and he should be running best of all late. Will it be enough? Not unless COLLECTED both gets more pace pressure than expected and has an off day. But, should it be enough to get HOPPERTUNITY a place on the podium? Yes.
It seems strange not to see rider Victor Espinoza return to ACCELERATE, given how good much of his year was last year, and how Espinoza tends to ride trainer John Sadler’s marquee horses. That’s particularly suspicious after ACCELERATE’s flop in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Instead, let’s lean a little bit on the horse with whom Espinoza turns up instead, PRIME ATTRACTION. PRIME ATTRACTION spent the summer running on grass, but notched a comfortable score in the Native Diver (G3) on the Del Mar dirt last out. He has a forward style, tactical speed, and a victory in his only start going a mile and a sixteenth on dirt. The question is his record at Santa Anita, where he has only been on the board twice in six tries, but that mile and a sixteenth win did come at the Great Race Place. It will be a tough ask for PRIME ATTRACTION to beat COLLECTED, but second off a break and with a bit of a red flag on ACCELERATE? It would be no surprise to see him hit the board.
#6 COLLECTED (3/5)
#1 HOPPERTUNITY (5/1)
#4 PRIME ATTRACTION (6/1)
Longshot: We tried to talk with the longshot writer. They muttered under their breath something mostly unintelligible. We thought we could make out the words “War Story” and “Pegasus”, but that little rant had nothing to do with the San Antonio, so we left them alone.
Race 6: Mathis Brothers Mile (G2), three-year-olds, one mile on the turf, post time 2:40pm PST
Inaugurated in 2000 as the Sir Beaufort Stakes, the $200,000 Mathis Brothers Mile took its current name (a nod to the chain of furniture shops) in 2014. The race has always given three-year-old grass milers a final chance to face their own age group before graduating to the older ranks for good. One horse has won this race and gone on to win the richest race in Chicago: 2008 Sir Beaufort winner Gio Ponti went on to win the Arlington Million the following year en route to both Champion Grass Horse and Champion Older Horse honours. He also finished second in the Million in 2010 and 2011. Gio Ponti also came close twice in Breeders’ Cup races: he was second in the Classic in 2009, and second in the Mile the next year. One horse has won both this race and the Breeders’ Cup Mile — Kip Deville won the 2006 Sir Beaufort, and took the Breeders’ Cup Mile the next year. Oddly enough, the other winner of this race to subsequently win a Breeders’ Cup race won his at one turn on the dirt: Orientate (2001) won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Arlington the following year, and earned the Eclipse award for that year’s Champion Sprinter.
This year’s edition of the Mathis Brothers Mile drew a field of eight, a field that does not abound with speed. It should set up well for Florida invader KROY. The rail draw is perfect for KROY: not only does he look the speed of the speed, but both times the Armando de la Cerda trainee has drawn the rail, he has made every call a winning one. He even has an out should the pace set up a little differently than expected; should HOLIDAY STONE outgun him, he can rate if he needs. The ship is the question, as this will be KROY’s first start outside the state of Florida. But, the firm California turf should remind him a bit of home, and he could get no more competent rider in the irons than Javier Castellano. KROY looks a strong upset candidate, and this space will take the shot.
BIG SCORE is the proven California lawnmower. Though he has been a bit of an underneath type lately, the cut back in distance should help: he hasn’t done a flat mile since a good second behind Frostmourne in the Penn Mile (G2) earlier this year, and BIG SCORE has two wins and two seconds in five tries going the distance. Third off the lay BIG SCORE should be fit, and his tracking style has proven effective in races without fiery fractions.
The third slot was a tight decision between BOWIES HERO and B SQUARED, but BOWIES HERO does not look to get quite enough pace to do his best work, leading to B SQUARED getting the nod here. Though the son of Square Eddie comes in here from a tilt in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1), he has two wins in three tries on the grass: once down the hill, and once at a mile on the Golden Gate grass. He has a bit of class to prove, as both of B SQUARED’s stakes victories have come against Cal-breds. But, his best races put him close to what he needs speed-wise, and the combination of his sharper sprint form and his stalk-and-pounce style should give him the tools to be competitive in this spot.
#1 KROY (6/1)
#8 BIG SCORE (5/2)
#2 B SQUARED (5/1)
Longshot: #6 HOLIDAY STONE (8/1) is the only one other than KROY who qualifies as a frontrunning type; should KROY come a bit flat off the ship, HOLIDAY STONE benefits greatly. Even if KROY fires sharply early, as expected, HOLIDAY STONE is effective rallying from a bit off the pace. Last out, he rallied to be beaten less than a length in a salty allowance race, without breakneck fractions in front of him. That flexibility should serve HOLIDAY STONE well. Though Santa Anita is a question — HOLIDAY STONE has never tried the course — he does get the services of strong California rider Rafael Bejarano, who should help him make his best account.
Race 7: La Brea Stakes (GI), three-year-old fillies, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 3:15pm PST
The $300,000 La Brea Stakes will be contested for the 45th 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 (GII) and concluding with the the La Canada Stakes (GII). 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 (GI) winner Jimmy Creed.
This race has been billed as a showdown between the two best West Coast three-year-old fillies not to cross paths yet: UNIQUE BELLA and PARADISE WOODS. Both of them deserve a look here. Though PARADISE WOODS comes out of a better showing at the Breeders’ Cup — third in the Distaff, versus UNIQUE BELLA finishing off the board in the Filly and Mare Sprint — UNIQUE BELLA has a bit more to like here. Both have solid records at Santa Anita, but UNIQUE BELLA has done just a bit more going short than PARADISE WOODS has. Though UNIQUE BELLA faltered last out, it’s a meaningful drop from older company to three-year-olds, and she’s not having to gun it from a far outside post like she had to try doing in the Breeders’ Cup. From the 3 hole in the field of eight, UNIQUE BELLA should be able to get a trip a bit more like she got two back in the L. A. Woman (G3), sit just off the pace, and make her rally. That said, PARADISE WOODS would be no surprise either. This will be her first try against stakes company at one turn, but her affinity for Santa Anita is well proven, and in her maiden win she showed that rating and rallying in a sprint is something that lives in this route-race frontrunner’s bag of tricks.
That said, there’s an old adage that rings true this time of year — if you can find a price horse with which to beat someone coming out of the Breeders’ Cup, give them a long look. This space has found one here in MISS SUNSET.
MISS SUNSET is a well-proven seven-furlong horse; she trounced Cal-breds at the distance, and also went to Keeneland and won the G2 Raven Run at the distance. And, inside posts tend to bring out the best in her. MISS SUNSET has a win and a close second the two times she has drawn the rail, another win from the two hole, and the front-end guts and grit to thrive despite the presence of other speed in the race. She will have to take a step up here if both UNIQUE BELLA and PARADISE WOODS bring their best, but that step forward is reasonable regardless — and may not have to be as big as expected, if this race proves to be “that one more race after the Breeders’ Cup” for the short-priced horses.
#1 MISS SUNSET (5/1)
#3 UNIQUE BELLA (9/5)
#7 PARADISE WOODS (8/5)
Longshot: #6 JUST A LITTLE HOPE (12/1) tries stakes company for the first time, but this looks like the right spot for that move. Her form at Santa Anita has been good; she has never been out of the exacta in four starts over the course. Even better, it seemed she bloomed in October on the stretch out to six and a half furlongs. Add to that the fact that she graduated going six and a half at Santa Anita as well, and it seems no stretch to say JUST A LITTLE HOPE is best at an extended one-turn trip. The seven panels of the La Brea should suit the daughter of Flatter beautifully. She adds blinkers for the first time here; though the worry is that they may make her show a bit too much speed, that worry is allayed by the fact that trainer Dan Hendricks does so well with first-time blinkers. JUST A LITTLE HOPE also runs well fresh; the layoff since October is, if anything a positive.
Race 8: Malibu Stakes (GI), three-year-olds, seven furlongs on the dirt, post time 3:48pm PST
This year marks the 66th 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 (GII) nor the San Fernando (GII) 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 (GI) up with a romp in the Malibu. Runhappy would be named the year’s champion sprinter.
Champion sprinter Runhappy wins the 2015 Malibu easily.
Million-dollar baby DABSTER has run just three times in his career, but has never cross the wire worse than first — the only loss on his record was a disqualification on debut. That race, as well as a last-out allowance victory against older horses, both came against seven furlongs. Though much of DABSTER’s pedigree suggests he may enjoy going longer (he’s by Curlin out of an A. P. Indy mare, after all…), the specialist distance of the Malibu has suited him beautifully so far. DABSTER has also shown good versatility of pace, able to fight gamely on the front or make a rally from a few lengths off. If DABSTER moves forward here — a likely scenario, as he comes second off the lay and makes just his fourth career start — he may just begin to make his gaudy auction price look worth it.
C Z ROCKET has emerged a promising face on the sprint scene through the second half of this year. He debuted late in the Saratoga meet, has raced three times, and has three win pictures in his collection. Bolstering his chances in the Malibu, all three of those starts have come at extended one-turn trips: a six-and-a-half-furlong debut, a seven-furlong first-level allowance, and a one-turn-mile second-level allowance. Though he is an off-pace type, C Z ROCKET suggested last out that he does not need to rally from particularly far off the pace, and he has proven he does not need a collapse to do his best work. It’s also a positive that regular rider Jose Lezcano hops the plane — Lezcano has ridden C Z ROCKET in all three of his previous starts, so they have a rapport.
Finally, one cannot help but give short-priced FAVORABLE OUTCOME a good shot — when Chad Brown ships a horse cross-country, he typically means business. The son of Flatter has shown aptitude for the seven-furlong distance of the Malibu, as he won the Swale (G2) last winter, and then finished a close third at the distance — facing older horses for the first time and running first off an eight-month lay. FAVORABLE OUTCOME followed that effort up with a six-and-a-half-furlong allowance score at Aqueduct, a strong tune-up for this spot. On pace, he won’t be on the front, but has proven himself versatile enough to sit close or sit a few lengths back, whatever regular rider Javier Castellano deems wise.
#8 DABSTER (6/1)
#9 C Z ROCKET (7/2)
#3 FAVORABLE OUTCOME (3/1)
Longshot: #2 EDWARDS GOING LEFT (8/1) started his career in the claiming and starter ranks, but has grown into a classier racehorse. Last out he won a California-bred stakes against older horses going seven furlongs at Del Mar, and two back he cleared his open N2X at Santa Anita — also against older — going six and a half on the main. The extended sprint trips have suited the son of Midnight Lute beautifully, making a seven-furlong race against three-year-olds a far more reasonable ask for EDWARDS GOING LEFT than his only other graded stakes try, a tilt against the likes of Roy H in the G1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship. With tactical speed, an affinity for the track, and a strong rider in Tyler Baze, EDWARDS GOING LEFT should invade the exotics if he runs back to his best, and could win this with a reasonable step forward.
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