Santa Anita Park unveils its new natural dirt track Dec. 26 with a quality nine-race card that includes a pair of grade I stakes for 3-year-olds each worth $250,000.
There were 97 horses entered for the day's action, which begins with a noon first post. This will be the 74th opening of Santa Anita's winter/spring meet. The track, which did not host the Oak Tree Racing Association's annual meet this fall for the first time since 1969, has been dark since April 18.
The new main track, the first dirt course at a major Southern California racing venue since 2007, plus the Sunday opening have made the start of the season more anticipated than it's been in some time. The weather has not cooperated, however, dumping more than seven inches of rain on the Los Angeles region since Dec. 16 and forcing horsemen to miss some training time on the new track.
After more rain Dec. 22, the area is expected to get some sunshine through Christmas Day. There is a 30% chance of some precipitation on opening day.
“We’ve been idle for a long time and people are very anxious to come back to Santa Anita, and we’re anxious to have them back," said George Haines, Santa Anita president. "Additionally, many of our best customers are looking forward to racing on a dirt surface again, as are our horsemen.
“The weather forecast, starting on Thursday, is very favorable and we’re looking forward to good weather on Sunday. It should be an historic and very exciting day and we’re looking forward to welcoming everyone back.”
The card includes four stakes, led by the Malibu (gr. I) for 3-year-olds and the La Brea (gr. I) for 3-year-old fillies. Both are contested at seven furlongs on the main track. Also on the program are the $150,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes (gr. IIT) for 3-year-olds at one mile on the turf, and the $100,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes for 2-year-old state breds over seven furlongs on the main track.
The Malibu, the eighth race with a 3:30 p.m. PST post, attracted a well-balanced field of 11. It features the return to stakes action of Caracortado, winner of the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) in the spring. Other main contenders are grade I winners Noble's Promise and Smiling Tiger, Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT) victor Twirling Candy , and the fast-developing Bob Baffert trainee Alcindor .
Caracortado, a California-bred son of Cat Dreams trained by Michael Machowsky for Blahut Racing and Lo Hi Racing, became a rags-to-riches story beginning late in 2009. He started out as a $40,000 maiden claimer and won the first five races of his career, topped by his 1 3/4-length victory in the Robert B. Lewis, a major Southern California stop on the Triple Crown trail. The rest of the trip didn't go as smoothly, however. He missed the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) following a fourth-place effort in the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and finished seventh in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
Given six months off after the Preakness, Caracortado returned to action with a six-furlong turf victory over an optional claiming allowance field at Hollywood Park Nov. 11. Machowsky worked the gelding seven furlongs in 1:23 over Santa Anita's main track Dec. 12 to get him ready for the Malibu.
“He worked lights out," the trainer said. "Everything’s kind of been going quick on this track, but he really went over it well. He always had that real quick turn of foot.”
Speaking of Caracortado's turf debut, Machowsky said: “I thought he’d love it, but the timing (spacing) of the race to me was a little bit better than waiting for another allowance race (on dirt) a couple weeks later. That way it gave me more time to keep him fresh for the Malibu.”
Caracortado, who will make his first start at seven furlongs, has won six of nine while earning $296,520. Joe Talamo, who rode Caracortado for the first time at Hollywood, retains the mount. They will break from post 4.
Coming off a third-place showing behind Big Drama in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs, Smiling Tiger is the 123-pound high weight in the Malibu field. He spots each of his rivals five pounds. To be ridden by Russell Baze for trainer Jeff Bonde and owners Philip Lebherz and Alan Klein, the son of Hold That Tiger drew the far outside post.
Smiling Tiger has won three of six starts this year, including the Bing Crosby (gr. I) and the Ancient Title (gr. I) stakes, both at six furlongs. In his last try at seven panels, he finished third in the Pat O'Brien Stakes (gr. I) at Del Mar, though he captured the Lazaro Berrera Memorial (gr. III) at the distance in May. He has not been out of the money in 10 lifetime starts—five wins and five thirds—while earning $717,864.
Chasing Dreams Racing 2008's Noble's Promise returns to Southern California for trainer Ken McPeek for the first time since his runner-up effort to Lookin At Lucky in the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) one year ago. Winner of Keeneland's Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) prior to that, Noble's Promise was on the Derby hunt this spring and finished fifth in the Run for the Roses.
Following a trip to England, where he was fifth in Royal Ascot's St. James's Palace Stakes (Eng-I) in June, Noble's Promise took a 4 1/2-month break. The Cuvee colt returned to win the six-furlong Jimmy V Stakes at Churchill Nov. 5 with a 102 Beyer Speed Figure. He shipped to Santa Anita from Gulfstream Park, where he breezed five furlongs in 1:01 Dec. 18.
Julien Leparoux retains the mount on Noble's Promise, who leads the Malibu field in earnings with $946,703 while winning four of 11 starts.
Twirling Candy won the first four starts of his career for owner Jenny Craig and trainer John Sadler, including a gate-to-wire 3 1/4-length tally in the Del Mar Derby in September.
The homebred son of Candy Ride was destined for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) last fall. But after a fourth-place finish as the 7-10 favorite in the Goodwood Stakes (gr. I), a race in which he weakened noticeably in the final furlong, his connections had second thoughts about rushing their rising star into the Classic.
“He wasn’t himself that day,” commented Sadler. “He was kind of crampy after the race. The time off has been good for him.”
Joel Rosario, who was aboard Twirling Candy for the Del Mar Derby, regains the ride. Twirling Candy has had one prior start at seven furlongs, breaking his maiden at Hollywood in his debut 13 months ago.
Alcindor, a $1.15 million Keeneland September yearling buy in 2008, is unbeaten in two starts for Baffert and owner Thoroughbred Legends Racing Stable. He earned a 102 Beyer for a 7 1/2-length triumph over first-level allowance rivals going seven furlongs at Hollywood Nov. 28. Rafael Bejarano rides the Unbridled's Song colt.
Setsuko, from the Richard Mandella barn for Wertheimer and Frere, has not been out since finishing fourth in the American Turf Stakes (gr. IIT) at Churchill April 30. He ran second by 4 1/2 lengths to Sidney's Candy in the Santa Anita Derby prior to that. Alex Solis will ride the son of Pleasantly Perfect for the first time.
Another worth considering in a strong Malibu field is the Steve Asmussen-trained Thiskyhasnolimit, seventh last time out in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I). The Sky Mesa colt was second in the Indiana Derby (gr. II) prior to that after winning the Smarty Jones Stakes in Philadelphia in September. The grade III winner has a victory at the distance, taking the Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill in May. Garrett Gomez has the call.
Paris Vegas, a listed stakes winner in France, the Sadler-trained Don Tito, Thomas Baines and Our Minesweeper complete the field.
$250,000 Malibu Stakes (gr. I, Race 8, 3:30 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 7 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Paris Vegas (KY), C S Nakatani, 118, F Chappet
2. Alcindor (KY), R Bejarano, 118, B Baffert
3. Thiskyhasnolimit (KY), G K Gomez, 118, S M Asmussen
4. Caracortado (CA), J Talamo, 118, M Machowsky
5. Noble's Promise (KY), J R Leparoux, 118, K G McPeek
6. Setsuko (KY), A O Solis, 118, R E Mandella
7. Don Tito (FL), P A Valenzuela, 118, J W Sadler
8. Thomas Baines (KY), M A Pedroza, 118, D F O'Neill
9. Twirling Candy (KY), J Rosario, 118, J W Sadler
10. Our Minesweeper (ID), B Blanc, 118, F Lucarelli
11. Smiling Tiger (KY), R A Baze, 123, J Bonde