Favorite in the Malibu, Longshot in the La Brea

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

Better late than never, the Santa Anita winter meet will open for business with a stakes-packed card on Saturday, December 28.

The traditional December 26 opening was postponed due to rain in the forecast, but hey, that just gives bettors a little more time for thorough post-Christmas handicapping.

Let's dig in and examine the La Brea Stakes (G1) and Malibu Stakes (G1), a pair of seven-furlong sprints for sophomores:

La Brea Stakes (G1)

Most folks will be siding with #5 Bellafina, and it's easy to understand why. A six-time graded stakes winner, Bellafina boasts a nearly perfect 4-for-5 record at Santa Anita, with victories in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) and Chandelier Stakes (G1) among her most notable triumphs. Her lone defeat came in the November 2 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), in which she came charging from off the pace to fall less than a length short of catching the brilliant Covfefe. The rest of the field finished 7 ¾ lengths behind Bellafina, who posted a career-best 105 Beyer speed figure.

A repeat of this performance will surely land Bellafina in the winner's circle, but I'm not sure she's a good play at a very short price. Her Filly & Mare Sprint performance marked a huge step forward from a speed figure perspective, and she was aided by rallying into fast fractions over a slow and tiring track.

I'm not typically a big proponent of the "bounce theory," but Bellafina could be a candidate to regress in the La Brea. She was primed for a peak effort in the Breeders' Cup, which marked her third start off a layoff, and she's come back with five fast workouts in the eight weeks since then. Perhaps her fast training moves are a sign she's still in top form, but after blazing five furlongs in :58 3/5 on December 13 and a half-mile in :47 1/5 on December 20, I'm left wondering how much gas she'll have in the tank for the La Brea.

There's also no telling how the Santa Anita main track will play on Saturday. This is the first card of the winter meet, and thinking back, opening day of the fall meet saw a very slow and tiring track. Similar going for the La Brea could toss up an unpredictable result, keeping with the overall trend of longshot winners reaching the La Brea winner's circle. Since 2011, Teddy's Promise (16-1), Book Review (4-1), Heir Kitty (13-1), Sam's Sister (12-1), Birdatthewire (10-1), Constellation (12-1), and Spiced Perfection (5-1) have all sprung upset victories in the La Brea, while odds-on favorites Turbulent Descent, My Miss Aurelia, Sweet Lulu, Taris, and Dream Tree have all been beaten.

If you're willing to oppose Bellafina, I suggest taking a shot with #7 Hard Not to Love. Trained by John Shirreffs, Hard Not to a Love has won three of her four starts and brings a solid pedigree to the equation. As a daughter of Hard Spun out of a Vindication mare, there should be enough stamina here to carry Hard Not to Love through a testing seven furlongs.

Hard Not to Love won her first two starts at Santa Anita, and following a third-place finish in the Angels Flight Stakes, she returned from a long layoff to prevail in a six-furlong allowance race on October 25. With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the saddle for the first time, Hard Not to Love stumbled at the start and wound up racing off the pace for the first time in her career. Despite this obstacle, she rallied smoothly into contention and won by three-quarters of a length.

Hard Not to Love didn't run particularly fast on the Beyer scale, earning an 86, but she gave the impression of being a little more dominant than her bare margin of victory suggests. I would argue she idled after striking the front in the homestretch, in which case there could be more to this filly than meets the eye.

Hard Not to Love has a history of breaking poorly from the starting gate, but if she can get away alertly in the La Brea, she should be a pace factor from the outset. It's often an advantage to secure a forwardly-placed position over deep and tiring tracks, and drawing post seven affords Smith the option to work out a clean trip setting or stalking the pace as necessary. If Hard Not to Love takes a step forward in her second start off the layoff, I think she can challenge for a surprise victory.

Malibu Stakes (G1)

I won't try to beat #5 Omaha Beach in this small field. Although he was defeated at even-money in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1), I thought Omaha Beach ran a big race to rally and finish second after falling too far off the early pace. He was gaining in the stretch on front-running winner Spun to Run, who returned to finish a solid second in the Cigar Mile (G1), and Omaha Beach has trained sharply in preparation for the Malibu. A bullet three furlongs in :34 flat on December 22 should help sharpen his early speed.

Instead of trying to take down Omaha Beach, I'll suggest a longshot for the runner-up spot. #1 Much Better has flashed serious speed for trainer Bob Baffert, but his overall form has been muddied by running long and/or by setting unsustainable fractions. Remember his performance in the one-mile Gotham Stakes (G3), when he carved out blazing fractions of :22.36, :44.42, and 1:09.23 before finishing fourth by just 1 ½ lengths? He was only beaten half a length by Mind Control, already victorious in the Hopeful (G1) and future winner of the H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (G1).

Much Better recently returned from a long layoff to finish second in a 6 ½-furlong allowance race on December 1 at Del Mar. After setting the pace against older rivals, he was beaten just a nose by the capable graded stakes performer Horse Greedy.

Much Better will return to his own age group for the Malibu and will do so while adding blinkers, which he wore for his best efforts during the first half of the season. Baffert strikes at a 33% rate when putting blinkers back on runners who had previously worn them, and Much Better looms as clearly the most likely pacesetter in the Malibu. Breaking from the rail, Much Better figures to come out running and take this field a long way on the front end.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the La Brea and Malibu Stakes?


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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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