Feels like old times at Santa Anita

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

This is how the seating at Santa Anita will be cordoned off to achieve social distancing with the return of spectators to the track Friday. (Ron Flatter photo)

Arcadia, Calif.

Clockers’ Corner was not as crowded as it was two springs ago, but it still felt lively Thursday morning.

Trainers Carla Gaines and Vlad Cerin brought around their dogs, who playfully breached whatever canine protocols there are for social distancing.

Hall of Fame jockey Kent Desormeaux was the best-dressed gent in the joint, sporting a colorful flat cap, shirt and slacks while others were wearing everything from T-shirts and jeans to jockeys’ safety gear and riding boots.

As Santa Anita’s signature green facades have faded another shade into that perfect patina against the Sierra Madre backdrop, trainers went about their business from the grandstand apron as they managed their strings of horses galloping on the track.

Dawn came so normally at Santa Anita, but the April Fool was that we were still masked up. Omnipresent nasal-oral guards notwithstanding, one more big step toward normalcy strides forward Friday, when as many as 9,000 fans per day will be welcomed back with their advance tickets to the race place that is getting back to great. The big day this weekend will be on a hot, sunny Saturday, when the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby will send one and maybe two horses to next month’s Kentucky Derby.

“It’s been 13 months,” trainer John Sadler said during a sit-down chat at the finish line at the end of Thursday morning’s workouts. “Everybody’s kind of excited with fingers crossed that we continue to do well in L.A. County. But we’re excited about crawling toward normality.”

Baseball is welcoming crowds back in dribs, drabs or, in the case of the Texas Rangers, in full-blown waves. Basketball and hockey have already put their toes back in the spectator waters. Why not horse racing? It is outdoors, racecourse properties are enormous, and places like Santa Anita have bent over backward to adhere to COVID regulations that are often more strict than an outside world peppered with super-spreader get-togethers.

Racing might not like to hear it, but it was unintentionally ahead of its time with social distancing. It was an unfortunate byproduct of the dwindling of live crowds in the past 40 years.

Just to try and protect the de rigueur six-foot minimum, the maintenance team at Santa Anita folded down grandstand seats in twos and fours. To create more than just elbow room between groups of spectators, the rest of the seats are folded up like airline tray tables, and then they were secured with zip ties.

“You can just cut the zip tie,” one Tweep wrote in response to that revelation. Criminy. Why do I even pass through that looking glass?

Ponder this as the weekend approaches. How will 3-year-old horses racing in Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, one of the last major preps for the Kentucky Derby, react when they hear a loud crowd for the first time in their careers? Remember, they did not have that experience as 2-year-olds when the pandemic era began. An attendance count of 9,000 might not sound like much in the greater scheme of sports crowds, but there is a good chance that many people will pin the virtual decibel meter that is inside the ears of some young horses.

Or will they?

“I don’t really think it makes that much of a difference,” said XBTV’s Zoe Cadman, herself a former jockey who won the riding title at Hawthorne Park 20 springs ago. “You’re going to have the young horse that gets a little bit more worked up. But horses are fickle creatures. If you see a lion on the side of a racetrack, you think that horse is going to spook at the lion. But then a butterfly comes across, and it spooks at the butterfly. You just never know.”

In other words, don’t overthink something that might not come to pass. Life Is Good supposedly shied away when he saw the video board on the Santa Anita infield, causing him to veer wide, wider and widest in winning last month’s San Felipe Stakes. Never mind that he could not have seen the screen when he started drifting. That is a moot point now that he is on the shelf with an injury that threw him off the Derby trail.

In his absence, his Bob Baffert stablemate Medina Spirit (5-2) inherits the role of morning-line favorite against a field of 10 that includes five horses that he has already beaten. The new shooters include maiden winner Defunded (8-1), the new “other Baffert”; and Sadler’s 2-for-2 turfer Rock Your World (4-1), a Candy Ride colt that also looks bred for dirt.

That looks like the winning trifecta ticket, and it would not be the least bit surprising if Defunded pulled off the upset as a horse that looks like he will love going a distance longer than a sprint for the first time.

While that scratches the itch of the bettor, just having fans at Santa Anita again is one more sign that we are closer to the end of this nightmare than we are to the beginning.

As I was walking up to the press box in the middle of a Thursday without racing I spotted a worker bringing slabs of liquor into one of the small bars that dot the back yard here at Santa Anita.

For the sight of 9,000 people Saturday, and maybe even 900 or so people Friday, I’ll drink to that.

Racing notes and opinions

The Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky and the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York on Saturday are each 1⅛ miles. Each is an automatic Kentucky Derby qualifier for the winners, and a possible gateway to Churchill Downs for the runners-ups. Essential Quality (3-5) is the morning-line favorite for what looks, sounds and smells like a paid workout in the Blue Grass. Funny thing. If he does not finish in the top four, Essential Quality could be a four-time winner with two Grade 1 victories and a juvenile championship last year, and he could be left out of the Derby. It is unlikely, but he has not yet clinched a spot in the 20-horse gate May 1 at Louisville. Something just looks, sounds and smells wrong about that.

With Essential Quality the likely winner in the Blue Grass, the best bet may be to find the horse that finishes a cold exacta. The play here will be with two long shots. One is Hidden Stash (20-1), a Constitution colt that has finished in the money five times in a row, including a narrow loss to 15-1 long shot Helium in the Tampa Bay Derby. The other is Untreated (10-1), an 8¾-length maiden winner last month in his first race for his new owner Barry Irwin and his new trainer Todd Pletcher. With dry, partly cloudy weather in the forecast for Lexington, Ky., the Blue Grass is scheduled for Saturday at 6:35 p.m. EDT.

Keeneland’s opening-day program Friday includes the first two races in the country this year for 2-year-olds. The morning-line favorite in each of the  4½-furlong dirt dashes is an American Pharoah filly bred, owned and trained by Wesley Ward. Dream Fly (6-5) will go against nine rivals in the opener at 1:05 p.m. EDT. Magniloquent (8-5) drew wide and goes against eight of her peers in the third race at 2:12 p.m. EDT. British horseplayers will keep a close eye on these races, since they could be a preview of Ward’s coming attractions for Royal Ascot in June.

Having won the Withers over the same course and distance, Risk Taking (5-2) is the lukewarm favorite in the Wood Memorial. Prevalence (3-1), however, is the buzz horse. Why not? He is 2-for-2 for trainer Brendan Walsh, who extends the Medaglia d’Oro colt into his first two-turn race. Instead of those two, though, I feel like the pied piper following the braggadocio of trainer Danny Velázquez, who has gone all Joe Namath and Mark Messier by predicting a certain victory for Brooklyn Strong (6-1). He has not raced since last fall, when he won the Remsen over the same 1⅛ miles, except it was sloppy that day. He has two other victories on fast tracks, including a state-bred stakes at Belmont Park in October. The race sets up for a horse to win making the first run on the early leaders, and Brooklyn Strong’s style fits. On a clear, crisp day at Ozone Park, the Wood is posted for Saturday at 5:58 p.m. EDT.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big events. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. From Santa Anita this week’s RFR provides a preview of Saturday’s three major Kentucky Derby preps. XBTV’s Zoe Cadman analyzes the Santa Anita Derby. Trainer John Sadler discusses undefeated Rock Your World's move from turf to dirt. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo handicaps the Santa Anita Derby, the Blue Grass Stakes and the Wood Memorial. The RFRP is available now at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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