Opening weekend of the Santa Anita autumn meeting is loaded with stakes intrigue across nearly every Breeders' Cup championship division. The 11-race program gets underway at 3:30 pm ET Saturday and includes superstars Maximum Security and Improbable in the featured Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes. The Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship precedes that one in Race 9 and will be conducted over 1-1/4 miles from the downhill turf course starting point.
NEXT SHARES is a Grade 1 winner, but multiple Grade 2 winner and Grade 1-placed UNITED may be the most accomplished in the line-up. Rival OSCAR DOMINGUEZ also has won at the Grade 2 level. The rest have something to prove in the class department.
SALVATOR MUNDI could be lone speed in a field absolutely devoid of early foot. He's pressed quicker paces at shorter trips and should default to the front. UNITED tends to sit close up in races like this with some pace versatility. The deeper closers should be at a disadvantage.
UNITED has been favored in 6 of his last 8 starts, and will be again, despite a narrow runner-up last out at 3-5 in the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap. He also was favored in this race last year at 2-1 when settling for third. His signature performance was a close runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Turf. See a pattern here? For a horse with 6 wins in 15 starts, he still gives the appearance of a nibbler. His 3 wins this year have come by a combined margin of 1 length at 4-5, 6-5 and 7-5. He's a rock-solid type, but one who does not give much margin for error...nor resemblance to value. Trainer Richard Mandella has won this race 6 times, second only to the amazing 9 victories by Charlie Whittingham in the John Henry Turf Championship (a race formerly known as the Oak Tree Invitational and the Clement Hirsch Turf Championship).
ORIGINAIRE finished just behind UNITED in the Whittingham, Eddie Read and Del Mar Handicap. The Jeff Mullins trainee obviously isn't far off the favorite after a wild trip last out in the Del Mar Handicap in which he came up a half-length short despite blowing the turn. Jockey Abel Cedillo was a Santa Anita autumn stakes whiz last year with a 16: 6-3-2 record. Those 6 wins came for 6 different trainers and produced a whopping $3.44 ROI for every $1 bet ($6, $9, $12, $12, $20, $52 winners).
OSCAR DOMINGUEZ hasn't come with the same late kick this year at age 7, losing all 4 starts and mustering the bottom of 2 trifectas. He's 4-for-24 lifetime on the Santa Anita turf, so there's no reason to connect the dots to the winner's circle in another pace scenario that continues to work against him. Solid veteran turf rider Jose Valdivia takes the mount after Respoli, Rosario and Van Dyke failed to find paydirt.
Also age 7, NEXT SHARES similar to OSCAR DOMINGUEZ hasn't seemed like the same horse this year. The fellow Richard Baltas trainee is 0-5 in 2020, and just 1-for-9 at Santa Anita lifetime while primarily a miler. To stretch him out now is almost an admission that he lacks the turn of foot he once packed.
Trainer Phil D'Amato saddled the John Henry winner last year, his second trophy here in the last 5 editions, and has SALVATOR MUNDI in a very opportunistic spot. It's not the deepest field, and the pace situation absolutely gives him every chance to pull the upset. He's more of a middle-distance runner and via pedigree, but the downhill start has long helped horses get the 10-furlong trip at Santa Anita that would be tougher at other venues. SALVATOR MUNDI is 3: 2-1-0 this year, his first full season with D'Amato after being claimed in Kentucky last fall.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: UNITED should get a good trip over a course and distance he likes.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: The pace advantage and connections of SALVATOR MUNDI are worthy of our interest. Trainer Phil D'Amato has been red-hot since August, and he's 5: 3-1-1 during that time with Umberto Respoli in the saddle.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): $70 exacta SALVATOR MUNDI over UNITED. $15 exacta SALVATOR MUNDI over ORIGINAIRE. $15 pick three starting in Race 8 SPIELBERG with SALVATOR MUNDI with IMPROBABLE.