By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
On December 26th, Santa Anita Park will begin their eagerly-anticipated winter meet with a nine-race card highlighted by three graded stakes races, including a pair of grade I races—the $300,000 Malibu Stakes (gr. I) and the $300,000 La Brea Stakes (gr. I). It promises to be a very exciting day of racing, so let’s start handicapping!
Malibu Stakes (gr. I)
This seven-furlong race for three-year-olds marks the return of Shared Belief, who won his first seven starts in impressive fashion before going down to defeat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), a race in which he was bumped severely at the start and then again in the opening furlongs. Given the circumstances, his fourth-place finish was excellent, but it’s also fair to question if he is quite as good on dirt as he is on synthetic. Additionally, I’m not sure he’s as good sprinting as he is routing, although his vast talent and good tactical speed should help him perform well on the cutback.
Still, given his credentials, he’s bound to be a pretty heavy favorite, and the questions of dirt and distance leave me looking to oppose him with a true sprinter offering better odds. I believe that horse is Indianapolis.
One of four horses in the Malibu trained by Bob Baffert, Indianapolis began his career with a pair of impressive victories, including a romp in the six-furlong San Pedro Stakes at Santa Anita, which he won in the sharp time of 1:08.80. He was sidelined for eight months after that, but returned to score a gritty victory going 6 ½ furlongs at Santa Anita on September 26th, which prompted his entry in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) against older horses. In that race, he got off to a slow start, then had to go extremely wide around the turn before finishing up nicely in the homestretch to be beaten just 5 ½ lengths. This deceptively strong effort should leave him a good price on Friday, and given his terrific early speed and ability to rate off the pace, I envision him working out a great stalking trip from post three before getting the jump on Shared Belief in the homestretch.
I wish I had the time to discuss all of the other runners in this race, but unfortunately, that would take a bit too much space. Still, I will take a moment to mention two other horses, the first being Chitu. Another of the Baffert-trainees, Chitu successfully stretched out to nine furlongs in winning the Sunland Derby (gr. III) earlier this year, but he’s also unbeaten sprinting and returned from a layoff to impressively win the seven-furlong Damascus Stakes against older horses on October 31st. With that race under his belt, and having turned in a number of sharp workouts since then, Chitu figures to be very tough to catch on the lead. He’s unlikely to offer the best odds, but anything higher than 3-1 is fair value in my opinion, and I think a Chitu/Indianapolis boxed exacta has a good chance to hit and pay very nicely.
For an extreme longshot, Frensham looks intriguing. He’s run fairly well on dirt in the past, although his recent starts have been on turf and synthetic. The return to dirt and the shift to seven furlongs could yield an improved effort, and he’s also posted a quartet of solid works since his last race. I expect to see him settle about mid-pack early on, not too far off the lead, and then try to avoid losing too much ground from post ten. From there, he might have a fighting chance to crack the superfecta at a huge price.
La Brea Stakes (gr. I)
I may be game to try and beat Shared Belief, but I’m afraid I can’t really take a stand again Taris in this seven-furlong race for three-year-old fillies. On September 10th, she returned from a layoff to win a six-furlong allowance race at Presque Isle Downs by nearly eight lengths in the blazing time of 1:08.39, then won the seven-furlong Lexus Raven Run Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland by nine lengths in 1:21.32. For the latter effort, she earned a 110 Beyer speed figure—the best of the year by any three-year-old filly—and although she has since been sold and transferred to a different trainer, her recent workouts suggest that she has taken to Santa Anita very well and is ready for a huge effort. Although she’ll be a short price, she is my selection.
Since there’s a lot of early speed in this race, I’ll take a try with Sam’s Sister to rally for second place. Although she finished last in her most recent start, a five-furlong turf sprint at Del Mar, she is unbeaten in three starts on dirt and synthetic, including a seven-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita, which she won by a head in 1:21.66 seconds. While she does have plenty of tactical speed, she has also shown the ability to rate, and should be rallying in the homestretch at around 8-1.
With Christmas right around the corner, I will be stepping away from the blog on December 24th and 25th, but I’ll be back to discuss the races on December 26th. Until then—Merry Christmas to all!