Handicapping Opening Day at Santa Anita

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Christmas 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.

This year's schedule of races looks particularly exciting and competitive, so let's start handicapping!

La Brea Stakes (gr. I)

On 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.

However, 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 race.

Also, 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.

But 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.

The 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.

Lunar 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.

Finley'sluckycharm 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)

With 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.

But 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 battle.

One 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 Dortmund.

Not 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.

Since 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.

Keeping 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.

Thanks 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)

Many 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.

Therefore, 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 winter off.

Since 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.

Against 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 :10.87!

Most 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.

I 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 to beat.

Now 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.

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