First, merry Christmas. Here is hoping it bears some resemblance to a positive normal.
The racing year reaches a final climax Saturday. Rather than a punctuation mark on 2020 that sounds like the loser horns on “The Price Is Right,” it actually might be a clarion call for 2021.
Presuming a winter storm or the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health do not re-enact any of last season’s delays, Santa Anita will host the final significant day of North American racing before horses turn another year older next Friday.
The $300,000 Grade 1 Malibu will be the last big dance for current 3-year-olds. It is literally a dash of unfulfilled ambition for 2020.
Charlatan, Thousand Words and Independence Hall at one time or another were the favorite for the Kentucky Derby. For one reason or another they all missed the race. Nashville was a year late coming to the Derby party, and Collusion Illusion turned into a head case that finally got his act together far from the glare of the Triple Crown.
These five horses carried the blush of young hope into their barns last year. Just look at the combined $2.5 million it cost for their owners to fetch them from auction rings. These were the horses of dreams awash in green and seen through rose-covered withers.
Not that the Kentucky Derby has to be the end-all. A good many trainers taught me years ago that there are a lot of good horses that never get there – and for very good reasons. Good horses may also land in the Malibu, earn their owners a nice chunk of cash and then pivot into successful 4-year-old seasons.
At seven furlongs with a purse of $300,000, the Malibu is three-eighths of a mile and $2.7 million dollars smaller a stage than the Kentucky Derby. But like the Met Mile six months ago in the east, the Malibu provides a crossroads in the west.
Charlatan was a $700,000 poster child for what ailed Bob Baffert’s barn in an otherwise successful year. A positive drug test cost him his victory in one of the two divisions of the Arkansas Derby. A month later an ankle injury took him out of the running for the postponed Kentucky Derby. Now with Hall of Famer Mike Smith on board and drawing post position 4, he is back to remind us of the good reputation he once had. That was the one built on three times in three frontrunning starts that he finished first by a combined 22 lengths. His best Beyer Speed Figure of 106 still resonates.
Thousand Words cost Dennis Albaugh and B. Wayne Hughes $1 million. He rewarded them – and Baffert – with three early victories. In six races since, though, his only win was in a listed stakes. His year was epitomized minutes before he would have run in the Derby. He got fussy about being saddled and flipped over in the Churchill Downs paddock, breaking assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes’s wrist and getting himself scratched from the race. A month later Thousand Words flopped in a different way, finishing eighth in the Preakness. This weekend he is paired for the first time with another Hall of Famer, jockey John Velázquez, in post 2.
Independence Hall was last year’s version of Life Is Good. Maybe better. On New Year’s Day he ran his record to 3-for-3 by winning the Jerome. But then he faded, finishing second in the Grade 3 Sam F. Davis and fifth in the Grade 1 Florida Derby. Owner Aron Wellman decided a long break was due. So was a change of scenery. From Mike Trombetta in the east, Independence Hall was turned out and moved west to trainer Mike McCarthy. A comeback, allowance victory last month at Del Mar offered hope that he may find his old form again. Now, drawn wide in post 6, he is reunited with Joel Rosario, his maiden-breaking rider who was also on board for the Florida Derby dud.
Nashville, like Charlatan, is a son of Speightstown, and the similarities do not end there. They are both frontrunners. They have both finished first by daylight in their three starts. In this case they all still count. Trainer Steve Asmussen might have had unspecified trouble getting him onto the track, but once there Nashville has run away from his competition by an average of 8¼ lengths per race. His black-type win last month earned him a 103 Beyer. Unlike the others, this $460,000 colt has not regressed. Regular jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. flies west for this ride from post 3.
Collusion Illusion actually has something that the other four horses do not – a Grade 1 victory. He also performed a disappearing act that remains a mystery. Insisting there was nothing physically wrong with him, trainer Mark Glatt said it was a mental thing. That this $300,000 colt was not all there when he was pulled up in last year’s American Pharoah Stakes. His comeback from a seven-month break began with three straight wins and was highlighted in August by the Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar. But then he looked outclassed in the Grade 2 Santa Anita Sprint Championship, and he was little more than a 12th-place bystander in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Is an equine psychologist on call? Flavien Prat keeps the ride and starts Saturday from the rail.
Charlatan and Nashville are likely to get most of the betting dollars, and they might just battle for the early lead. If they burn out, it begs the question which horse will pick up the pieces? The thought here is that Independence Hall may be fresh enough to be that horse and score at a decent price.
Saturday’s winner may have a leg up on next year the way McKinzie did parlaying his 2018 Malibu victory into a 2019 that included a triumph in the Grade 1 Whitney. City Of Light’s 2017 win preceded a 13-month run of Grade 1 success in the Triple Bend, the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and the Pegasus World Cup. Mind Your Biscuits turned his 2016 Malibu score into trophy grabs the next two years in the Dubai Golden Shaheen.
The Malibu has not always been a springboard for the following year. Omaha Beach won 12 months ago in what was supposed to be a tune-up for his farewell in the Pegasus. But he had to be scratched by trainer Richard Mandella when he developed a cannon-bone fracture, an unfortunately appropriate fate for a colt that was long on talent but short on durability.
Whatever happens Saturday, the Malibu offers hope for a better 2021 not only for the horses but, symbolically, for all of us. It may not be the two turns around Churchill Downs in May – or September, or whenever. It may not be for the bounty of bigger Grade 1s. It is, after all, just a sprint.
Corny as it sounds, here is hoping the Malibu is truly is a turn for the better.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. Workout analyst Bruno De Julio, Horse Racing Nation CEO Mark Midland and longtime turf writer and publicist Jennie Rees are part of a roundtable on the current episode sharing holiday stories plus thoughts about the year past and the one coming up. The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.