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
Let's dig in and examine the La Brea Stakes (G1) and
Malibu Stakes (G1), a pair of seven-furlong sprints for sophomores:
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
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.
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
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
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the La Brea and
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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.