J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
is coming, and horse racing fans know what that means--it means that opening day
at Santa Anita is just around the corner! With December 26th traditionally
marking the start of Santa Anita's winter meet, opening day at "The Great Race
Place" serves as an enjoyable post-Christmas day of top-notch racing, including
a pair of Grade 1 races for three-year-olds.
year's schedule of races looks particularly exciting and competitive, so let's
La Brea Stakes (gr. I)
paper, Finley'sluckycharm looks like
a huge standout. The daughter of Twirling Candy is unbeaten sprinting and has
won her last three races by a minimum of five lengths, including two impressive
wins against older mares at Churchill Downs. Last time out, she absolutely
crushed seven rivals in the Dream Supreme Stakes, winning by 8 ½ lengths while
earning a huge 102 Beyer. With a blend of terrific speed and the ability to
finish strongly, she looks like something special.
her dominant performances are bound to lead to a short price, and it's worth
noting that Finley'sluckycharm has yet to tackle seven furlongs; her only run
beyond six furlongs was the 8.5-furlong Rachel Alexandra Stakes (gr. II) back
in February, in which she set the pace before retreating to finish seventh. She
came out of the race with an injury, which could explain her poor showing, but
it does leave questions about her ability to handle a fast-paced seven-furlong
there's little doubt that the La Brea will unfold at a rapid speed since the
talented Enola Gray is expected to
be sent to the lead. She's shown lots of speed in the past, along with flashes
of brilliance; she won her debut by 16 ¼ lengths with a 99 Beyer and won the
seven-furlong Fleet Treat Stakes by 7 ¾ lengths with a 100 Beyer. Her last
three runs haven't been quite as impressive, but a more aggressive ride might
help her return to form.
Finley'sluckycharm and Enola Gray aren't the only front-runners in the La Brea--Perfect Pic, Chao Chom, Coniah, and Constellation have also shown
significant speed and a tendency to race on or near the lead, which almost
guarantees that we'll see a sub-:45 half-mile fraction in this race.
late-running Lightstream is the most
logical candidate to capitalize on a fast pace, as she's placed in a couple of
Grade 1 races and won the seven-furlong Raven Run Stakes (gr. II) with an
impressive late rally, but I'm actually more intrigued by the longshot Lunar Empress. This consistent filly
has never finished out of the exacta on dirt and most recently won a one-mile
allowance race at Del Mar against older mares.
Empress is facing a tough field and will need to take a big step forward, but I
have a gut feeling that she'll get a perfect setup in the La Brea. Coming out
of four straight route races, she should find herself further off the pace, and
the cutback to a one-turn race might sharpen her late run and produce an
improved performance. Trainer Richard Baltas has enjoyed a lot of recent
success with this angle, winning at a 25% rate with a $2.14 ROI when going from
routes to sprints over the last two years.
looks like the horse to beat, but I wouldn't count out Lunar Empress. At the
very least, I think she can outrun her odds and get on the board at a big
price; with the right setup, I think she can pull off the upset.
Malibu Stakes (gr. I)
the defection of Drefong due to an illness, it appears that Mind Your Biscuits is the horse to
beat. The talented colt won the Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga this
summer and most recently finished a late-running third in the Breeders' Cup
Sprint (gr. I), beaten just 1 ¼ lengths.
while I respect the chances of Mind Your Biscuits and won't be surprised if he
wins, he does strike me as a bit of a "pick up the pieces" type that is more
likely to hit the board than finish first; I'm also not sure if he's going to
get a really fast pace to set up his late run, as several of the speed horses
in the Malibu are adaptable runners that might not engage in a destructive pace
horse that has really caught my attention is Ten Blessings. Trained by Bob Baffert, the son of Smart Strike won
his debut last February at Santa Anita, but went to the sidelines with an
injury and did not return until September, when he finished seventh and fifth
in a pair of allowance races at the wide-ranging distances of 5 ½ furlongs and
8 ½ furlongs. But he showed signs of returning to form in the latter race,
losing by just three-quarters of a length, and he caught eyes before the
Breeders' Cup when he turned in sharp workouts in company with Drefong and
surprisingly, Ten Blessings was ready to roll when entered in a seven-furlong
allowance race on Breeders' Cup Friday. After settling a length off the lead
through fast fractions of :21.75 and :44.12, Ten Blessings seized command and
drew off to win by 4 ¾ lengths in the quick time of 1:21.60, good enough for a
Beyer speed figure of 106.
that race, Ten Blessings has continued to make a good impression training at
Santa Anita, and his six-furlong workout on December 20th was
achieved in effortless fashion. Furthermore, the runner-up in his allowance
win--Distinctive B--came back to win a six-furlong allowance race at Los Alamitos
by 3 ¼ lengths with a time of 1:08.79.
all of this in mind, Ten Blessings appears to be sitting on a very big effort
in the Malibu Stakes, and Bob Baffert has an impressive record with horses like
Ten Blessings; over the last five years, Baffert has gone 10-for-33 ($2.15 ROI)
with last-out winners in Grade 1 sprints, and that record is even more
remarkable with horses coming off of career-best Beyers (like Ten Blessings);
horses that fit this profile have gone 9-for-18 with a $3.03 ROI.
to the presence of Mind Your Biscuits, it's possible that Ten Blessings could be
a bit overlooked in the Malibu Stakes, but I view him as the most likely winner
and am excited to watch him run.
Mathis Brothers Mile (gr. II)
of the eleven horses in this race have taken turns beating each other in
California's top turf races for three-year-olds; Frank Conversation might be narrowly the best of the locals, having
won the Twilight Derby (gr. II) before finishing third in the Hollywood Derby
(gr. I) to a pair of East Coast shippers, but Frank Conversation's advantage
appears to be a tenuous one.
I'm tempted to take a shot with the new shooter Conquest Enforcer, who ships in from Canada after being sold at
auction and transferred from trainer Mark Casse to Philip D'Amato. Under
Casse's care, Conquest Enforcer showed a lot of talent right from the start; he
made his debut in the 2015 Summer Stakes (gr. II) and finished fourth, but won
the Cup and Saucer Stakes by 6 ¾ lengths in his second start before taking the
returning to the races in May, Conquest Enforcer has shown flashes of
brilliance. First he cruised to an effortless win in the seven-furlong
Queenston Stakes on the synthetic track at Woodbine, earning a 99 Beyer while
winning by 7 ¾ lengths. Then he switched
back to turf and stretched out to a mile in the Charlie Barley Stakes, which he
won in the sharp time of 1:33.73.
older horses, Conquest Enforcer finished a close third in the Play the King
Stakes (gr. II), beaten just a length by Glenville Gardens and a half-length by
Tower of Texas, who came back to finish second to Tepin in the Woodbine Mile
(gr. I). Back against three-year-olds, Conquest Enforcer proved he could win
away from Woodbine when he shipped to Belmont and won the six-furlong Allied
Forces Stakes by 1 ¾ lengths, running the last two furlongs in about :10.70 and
recently, Conquest Enforcer suffered a narrow defeat in the Nearctic Stakes
(gr. II) against older horses, finishing third by a neck to the exceptional
sprinters Calgary Cat and Stacked Deck. The fact that he has held his own
against some very good older runners is appealing, and although he's been
sprinting as of late, he's 2-for-3 going a mile or longer and should be able to
stretch his abundant speed to handle a flat mile at Santa Anita. The switch in
training environment is a bit of a concern, but D'Amato has enjoyed terrific
success with turf milers in California (Obviously, Midnight Storm, and Vyjack
all come to mind), and Conquest Enforcer signaled his readiness for this race
by breezing five furlongs in :59 flat on December 19th, the fastest of 120
morning workouts at that distance.
think Conquest Enforcer has an element of brilliance that isn't readily noticeable
by a glance through his past performances, and I believe he might be a step
above his rivals in the Mathis Brothers Mile. I've been waiting all year for
Conquest Enforcer to tackle a race like this, and I think he'll be very tough
it's your turn! Who do you like on opening day at Santa Anita?
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.