Opening day Saturday at Santa Anita boasts 6 stakes races, 5 of them graded, including an epic showdown between 3-year-old sprinters Nashville and Charlatan in the Grade 1 Malibu. An all-stakes late pick five begins in Race 7 with the Grade 2 San Antonio, a major stakes steppingstone toward the Pegasus World Cup in January and the Santa Anita Handicap in March.
MUCHO GUSTO and COMBATANT have Grade 1 victories in signature races like the Pegasus World Cup and Santa Anita Handicap, respectively. MIDCOURT and SHARP SAMURAI both are Grade 2 winners and Grade 1-placed. EXTRA HOPE is a Grade 3 winner and Grade 1-placed. MUCHO GUSTO, SHARP SAMURAI and MIDCOURT have consistently held the strongest company lines in a high-class lineup.
Rail-drawn TAKE THE ONE O ONE has a send-mentality. MUCHO GUSTO likely will be sharper early off a February layoff, and from the outside post, will be sent into a first-over press. Several want to sit in that third/fourth slot, including EXTRA HOPE, COMBATANT, MIDCOURT et al. The pace looks honest, but at 1-1/16 miles, don't expect it to melt down to deep closers.
MUCHO GUSTO can become Bob Baffert's seventh San Antonio winner and first since Hoppertunity went back-to-back in 2016 and 2017. His abbreviated 4-year-old season wasn't without a fat purse ledger. His Pegasus World Cup victory and fourth-place run in the Saudi Cup netted his connections $3.1 million. He won the Lewis, Barrera and Affirmed over the Santa Anita dirt as a 3-year-old in 2019. The nearly 10-month layoff into the San Antonio is of some obvious note, but he's worked right on cue for nearly 3 months for the comeback. The intermediate distance at 1-1/16 miles makes for a proper re-launch. Expect him to be on his game in this prep for a Pegasus World Cup defense on January 23.
Native Diver Stakes 1-2-3 finishers EXTRA HOPE, MIDCOURT and COMBATANT all re-match from their November 21 tussle at Del Mar. EXTRA HOPE wired that day with an aggressive ride from Juan Hernandez, taking advantage of a wild pace and keeping MIDCOURT at bay late. COMBATANT lost margin in the stretch for the seventh straight race while not making a dent from third. MIDCOURT was third in this race a year ago against a softer bunch. Of this trio, EXTRA HOPE appears to be doing best right now.
SHARP SAMURAI has been rock-solid from miles on dirt and turf to a classic mile and one-quarter on dirt. While there was no catching Knicks Go in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last out, arguably SHARP SAMURAI was second-best when missing the place dough by a nose following a troubled trip. The horse who edged him, Jesus' Team, already has returned to win the Claiming Crown Jewel. SHARP SAMURI has 20 in a row in the superfecta, as trustworthy an animal as you'll find in just about any situation.
IDOL will be the X-factor after back-to-back wins at Churchill Downs. He comes west for trainer Richard Baltas for the first time and makes his stakes debut. He's trained like a good horse at Del Mar and Santa Anita since his November arrival. The Curlin colt has been fast enough to win sprinting as well as routing 1-3/16 miles. The distance should fit in his crosshairs nicely. His long stride looks outstanding on video at XBTV in the morning.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: MUCHO GUSTO is 12-for-12 in the superfecta lifetime and has won all 3 starts at Santa Anita.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: TAKE THE ONE O ONE will reduce all the variables will rail speed. He held for the bottom of the superfecta in the Awesome Again Stakes at 59-1 against a slightly tougher cast. If a couple chasers lose steam and a couple of closers don't fire, you can see this one hanging on for a share.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): $40 exacta MUCHO GUSTO over IDOL ($40). $60 daily double MUCHO GUSTO to sharp-training stablemate MERNEITH in Race 8.
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