It showed up like clockwork last week in my email. Remember email? About 240 of us voters for the Eclipse Awards received our annual packets of digital information, complete with the usual advice to tamp an eagerness we may have to cast an early ballot.
“It is strongly encouraged,” the instructions said, “that you consider waiting to vote until after the conclusion of the Grade 1 races on Dec. 26 at Santa Anita Park, which are the Malibu Stakes, the La Brea Stakes and the American Oaks.”
There was no mention whatsoever of the Grade 2 race that might generate the most attention on Sunday’s opening-day card – and maybe even some Eclipse consideration.
Idle since he finished fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hot Rod Charlie makes his final start as a 3-year-old while getting a head start on a 4-year-old campaign that will take him to the mega-millions races in the Middle East. Lacking a Grade 1 dirt race to suit his two-turn comfort zone, the charismatic Oxbow colt is likely to be favored against open company in Sunday’s 8½-furlong, $200,000 San Antonio Stakes.
With California’s top jockey Flavien Prat riding for trainer Doug O’Neill, Hot Rod Charlie already has a year-end trophy to his name. Two weeks ago he was announced as the winner of the fan vote for the Vox Populi Award. His mano a mano duel with Essential Quality in the Belmont Stakes might have resulted in a defeat, but Hot Rod Charlie’s tenacity in leading most of the 1½ miles made that the race of the year – and a winner in the popularity contest run by Secretariat.com.
Owned by five old TDX frat brothers from Brown University, Hot Rod Charlie got that elusive, first Grade 1 victory Sept. 25 in the Pennsylvania Derby. Therein lies the problem in considering him for an Eclipse Award. Essential Quality is the more decorated 3-year-old dirt male, having won the Belmont and the Travers and holding a 2-1 record in his matchups with Hot Rod Charlie.
Another factor working recently against Hot Rod Charlie was out of his control. That was the Dec. 6 death of Medina Spirit. Trainer Bob Baffert had been pointing the disputed Kentucky Derby winner toward the San Antonio in hopes of running his head-to-head record against Essential Quality and Hot Rod Charlie to a combined 6-0. Conversely, a victory over Medina Spirit, a two-time Grade 1 winner this year, might have gotten voters to reconsider Hot Rod Charlie.
Between the merits of his Grade 1 victories, the added distance he ran to finish a close fourth in the Kentucky Derby and the inevitable backlash against Baffert over Medina Spirit’s failed drug test at Churchill Downs, Essential Quality always has felt like a lock to be voted the champion of his division. As a consolation, a victory Sunday could clinch Hot Rod Charlie his place as one of the three Eclipse finalists.
Two other races Sunday reckon to have a lot more influence on this year’s division championships that will be revealed Feb. 11 at Santa Anita.
* Dr. Schivel, who lost the Breeders’ Cup Sprint in a photo finish to Aloha West, seeks his second Grade 1 victory this year when he races in the $300,000 Malibu Stakes. The Bing Crosby winner this summer could separate himself from Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint victor Golden Pal and Forego winner Yaupon in the male-sprint category. Since Mark Glatt brought him off the bench nine months after his move from his former trainer Luis Méndez, Dr. Schivel won 3 of 4 starts, including two graded stakes, all with Prat riding.
* A half-length, upset loss in the San Clemente at Del Mar is the only stain on the résumé of Going Global. Trained by Phil D’Amato and ridden by Prat, the 3-year-old Mehmas filly can chalk up her second Grade 1 score of 2021 by winning the 1¼-mile, $300,000 American Oaks on the downhill turf course at Santa Anita. In an up-for-grabs, female-turf division, a victory Sunday might give Going Global some breathing room against the likes of Flower Bowl winner War Like Goddess and foreign contenders Santa Barbara and Loves Only You.
With top shippers and jockeys flying in from across the country, the traditional Dec. 26 opening day at Santa Anita used to be a bellwether for a competitive winter in southern California. Lately, though, it has punched above the weight of the rest of the long meet. There were 37 horse deaths three years ago, a COVID-induced stoppage two years ago and now the Baffert controversy marred by Medina Spirit’s fatal heart attack this year.
All this does not even take into account the shrunken field sizes. Already a landlocked island far from the rest of the country’s top-level colonies, California has endured an uphill fight to fill races for decades.
But there are signs Santa Anita is bouncing back from hitting bottom. The first condition book for the winter-spring meet restored a four-day racing week for the first time in nearly three years. Hall of Famer John Velázquez has moved his tack from the east coast and will call Santa Anita home this winter as will Joe Bravo, who abandoned the harshest crop rules in the country when he left New Jersey.
Maybe Eclipse Award winners will be decided in more than just a couple races Sunday at Santa Anita. Not just for 2021 but also for 2022. Us voters might want to keep watching The Great Race Place long after Sunday.
Racing notes and opinions
On a Fair Grounds main track that has a reputation for being kind to closers, Rocket Dawg may be in his element Sunday. That is when he tries to back up his 5½-length debut victory last month when he faces six other 2-year-olds in the inaugural running of the $100,000 Gun Runner Stakes in New Orleans. The two-turn, 8½-furlong race is the first of four Kentucky Derby points preps this season at Fair Grounds. Drawn favorably in post 3, the $375,000 Classic Empire colt trained by Brad Cox will be ridden again by Florent Géroux. Another closer, Tejano Twist, may be worth watching after he won the Lively Shively Stakes for trainer Bret Calhoun on Nov. 27 at Churchill Downs. In their two-turn debuts, both Rocket Dawg and Tejano Twist will be chasing maiden winners Surfer Dude and Epicenter. Surfer Dude is making a class jump for Dallas Stewart. Epicenter, who drew the rail Sunday, overcame post 10 to win a one-turn mile for Steve Asmussen last month at Churchill Downs. Waita Minute Hayes, who won a two-turn, mile stakes Nov. 20 at Delta Downs, is a long shot worth watching. I will key Rocket Dawg and Tejano Twist while adding Epicenter and Waita Minute Hayes deeper in my exotic bets. The Gun Runner is scheduled for Sunday at 6:06 p.m. EST.
I have heard an increasing number of National Thoroughbred Writers and Broadcasters making noise about abstaining from Eclipse Award categories that might otherwise lean hard to Baffert-trained horses. Corniche for 2-year-old male and Gamine for female sprinter leap to mind. I get the point of those who want to make a statement, but is it right to penalize the horses? The rules of Eclipse voting call for abstaining voters to leave the entire category blank and not simply, say, leave a first choice blank while filling in second and third places. That means more than just the Baffert stable would be affected. The rules, however, leave little room for other forms of protest.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features a Christmas conversation among friends. Japan Thoroughbred liaison Kate Hunter, Racing Post correspondent Scott Burton from Paris and turf writer John Cherwa from The Los Angeles Times discuss the year in racing and look ahead to 2022. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.