LAS VEGAS — The next big thing on the way to the big thing after that will arrive next week, when that bucket-list destination known as Santa Anita opens as it usually does on the day after Christmas.
It’s not Del Mar or Saratoga. It’s not even what “The Great Race Place” was when it was christened with Hollywood stars and without palm trees on Christmas Day 1934. But opening day carries a little more significance this year, because one of the graded stakes Tuesday will serve as an important prep for the world’s richest race.
With the Horse of the First-Half of the Year – a.k.a. Arrogate – off to stud, Bob Baffert is looking to Collected and West Coast to be his next big thing. One of them could do what Arrogate did last winter and win next month’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park.
Coming off a runner-up finish to Gun Runner in last month’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, Collected will race one last time as a 4-year-old in the $300,000 Grade 2 San Antonio, one of four graded stakes on Santa Anita’s opening day. With a decisive performance Tuesday, the front-running Collected would solidify his place ahead of West Coast as the second choice behind Gun Runner for their rematch in the Pegasus.
“He goes at such a high cruising speed,” Collected’s morning rider Drayden Van Dyke said Tuesday. “At the top of the lane it’s like he rebreaks again, and he’s just starting to work. He’s doing very well.” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will get his first ride on Collected in Tuesday’s race.
An odds-on favorite at the Wynn Las Vegas for the Pegasus, Gun Runner (3-5) was joined by Collected (9-2) and the likely 3-year-old champion West Coast (5-1) in having spots confirmed in the Jan. 27 embarrassment of riches. The Stronach Group, which runs the Pegasus, said that Travers runner-up Gunnevera (12-1), Clark Handicap winner Seeking The Soul (15-1), comebacking Toast Of New York (22-1) and six-time Grade 1-winning mare Stellar Wind (25-1) are also assured of places.
Ron Paolucci and Adena Springs hold two other confirmed spots. Paolucci is expected to enter War Story (45-1), which was fifth in this year’s Pegasus; Game Over is his alternate. The Adena Springs slot is open after 2017 Pegasus runner-up Shaman Ghost was retired.
Cigar Mile winner Sharp Azteca (8-1), a Jorge Navarro-trained stable mate of War Story, is also being aimed at the Pegasus, but owner Ívan Rodríguez Gelfenstein still has to buy his way in. He could pay $1 million for one of the open slots or make a deal with Frank Stronach for the Adena Springs space. In case of oversubscription, a Gulfstream Park committee will choose the horses for the final three slots.
Although he does not have a place in the Pegasus field, Hoppertunity might yet be considered worthy if he were to win a record third straight time Tuesday in the San Antonio. The 6-year-old closer also trained by Baffert has lifetime earnings of $4,329,025, but he has not won since last January’s running of the San Antonio. He most recently finished a game third last month in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs. For both Hoppertunity and Collected, Tuesday’s race represents a cutback to 1 1/16 miles.
Accelerate could be a spoiler among the six older horses in the San Antonio. An upset winner at 7-1 over Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap, the 4-year-old colt trained by John Sadler looks to bounce back from a troubled ninth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Javier Castellano flies in from the East Coast to take the ride from regular jockey Víctor Espinoza, who will instead be on Prime Attraction, a Grade 3 winner Thanksgiving weekend at Del Mar.
Top Of The Game, undefeated in four ungraded tries at Santa Anita, and Pat O’Brien winner Giant Expectations are the other two horses in the field for the San Antonio, which has a post time of 1 p.m. PST Tuesday.
Unique Bella looks to rebound in La Brea
Not to be upstaged, the Grade 1 part of Tuesday’s Santa Anita card features Unique Bella, last seen as the beaten favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. With a 4-for-4 record this year at Santa Anita, she will probably be the favorite in a field of eight for the seven-furlong, $300,000 La Brea Stakes, the last Grade 1 dirt race this year for 3-year-old fillies. The race is scheduled for 3 p.m. PST Tuesday.
“She should be plenty fit enough to run in the race,” Unique Bella’s trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. “She’s been training beautifully and can run short or long, and a lot of good horses can’t do that.” The filly by Tapit has won at distances from 6½ to 8½ furlongs.
The seven-furlong, $300,000 Grade 1 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-old males at 3:30 p.m. PST Tuesday figures to be more wide open. Smarty Jones winner Pavel, trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Mario Gutiérrez, may be the top betting choice in a race that includes New York graded-stakes winners Takaful and J Boys Echo.
Dabster, a lightly raced, highly regarded Curlin colt that cost Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa $1 million, makes his stakes debut for Baffert in the Malibu. “He’s never been a real willing worker,” Baffert said after Dabster’s 1:00 1/5 work over five furlongs Wednesday. “He’s just that way. But it was a good work.”
Santa Anita is also using Tuesday’s card to launch a new betting menu, adding 50-cent trifectas, a late 50-cent Pick 5 and rolling $1 Super High Fives for all races. Those features will be added to the single-ticket Pick 6 jackpot, the early 50-cent Pick 5 and a $1 million-guaranteed, late Pick 4 on opening day.
Racing notes: Bolt d’Oro still Derby favorite
Two-time Grade 1 winner Bolt d’Oro is now the 7-1 favorite at Wynn Las Vegas to win the Kentucky Derby. McKinzie’s controversial victory in this month’s Los Alamitos Futurity helped him get to 11-1 followed by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic (14-1). Demoted from first to third in the Los Al Futurity, Solomini (18-1) is now the fourth choice in the Wynn futures. Trainer Mick Ruis said that Bolt d’Oro will stay at Santa Anita to train and prep for the Kentucky Derby.
It may have seemed inconsequential, but trainer Ron Ellis had his request to knock one day of his drug suspension rejected by the California Horse Racing Board. A reduction from 60 to 59 days could have kept Ellis from having to break up his stable under CHRB rules. Ellis offered to accept 12 months’ probation in exchange for the one day, but the board said that he should have submitted the proposal before he was sanctioned. Ellis was also fined $10,000 after he admitted that he gave Masochistic a steroid before last year’s Breeders’ Cup. The dose of stanozolol was not completely out of the gelding’s system by the time he finished a now-disqualified second in the 2016 Sprint. Because stanozolol has limited legality in California racing but not in the Breeders’ Cup, championship organizers started their own drug-testing program this past summer.
A mainstay on the East Coast throughout his career, Rajiv Maragh has moved his tack west to Santa Anita, where he will have three rides Tuesday in non-stakes races. Maragh, 32, had been in the top 20 in earnings for seven straight years before he was seriously injured in a racing accident at Belmont Park in July 2015, forcing him to miss 16 months.
Hall of Famer LeRoy Jolley, who trained Foolish Pleasure and Genuine Risk to Kentucky Derby victories in 1975 and 1980, died Monday. His career spanned nearly 60 years with his last winner coming in a claiming race two years ago at Tampa Bay Downs. Jolley, 80, died of lung cancer at a hospital in Albany, N.Y.
Where will the Breeders’ Cup be held after Churchill Downs hosts it in 2018? The answer may be answered five-fold next month. Cup chairman Fred Hertrich III told The Blood-Horse that “we will have a four- or five-year plan by the end of January.” Santa Anita and Churchill Downs are always in the mix. Del Mar and Keeneland left positive impressions in their first times hosting the championships. Hertrich also said Laurel Park might be in the loop for the first time.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s Christmas edition features Chris Fallica, “The Bear” from ESPN “College GameDay,” discussing handicapping contests and next year’s Kentucky Derby, and Scott Burton, Paris correspondent for Racing Post comparing notes on U.S. and European race betting. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Spotify.