By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Horse racing in the U.S.
will take its annual day off on Friday, Christmas Day. But the sport will
return with a bang on Saturday when Santa Anita Park opens for its prestigious winter
Three Grade 1 races are on
the schedule, including the $300,000
Malibu (G1) and the $300,000 La Brea
(G1). These important 7-furlong sprints serve as final opportunities for elite
3-year-olds to face their own age group before stepping up against open company
Without further ado, let's
dig in and unlock some winners!
La Brea (G1)
You might want to think
twice about supporting morning line favorite #5 Finite (5-1). Not that her record is uninspiring—to the
contrary, the five-time stakes winner is the most accomplished filly in the
field and enters fresh off a victory over older rivals in the 1-mile Chilukki
(G3) at Churchill Downs. It's just that favorites have really, really struggled
in recent editions of the La Brea.
Case in point? 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), Spiced Perfection (5-1), and Hard
Not to Love (11-1) have all posted upset victories in the La Brea. During the
same timeframe, odds-on favorites Turbulent Descent, My Miss Aurelia, Sweet
Lulu, Taris, Dream Tree, and Bellafina have all fallen to defeat.
The La Brea frequently
unfolds at a rapid pace favorable to late runners, and the 2020 edition seems
destined to produce a similar result. There's plenty of speed in the mix—at least
half a dozen runners have regularly and recently displayed an interest it
setting or stalking the pace. Potentially, this could set the stage for an
upset victory by #11 Stellar Sound (5-1).
Trained by Michael McCarthy,
Stellar Sound showed plenty of promise in a 1-mile allowance event racing a
mile at Santa Anita. After tracking the pace from second place, Stellar Sound
pounced around the far turn and drew away strongly down the stretch to win by
According to Steve Anderson
of the Daily Racing Form, Stellar
Sound was supposed to utilize another allowance race as a prep for the La Brea,
but none turned up. Instead, McCarthy entered Stellar Sound against older mares
in the 1 1/16-mile Bayakoa (G3), where the gray filly endured a challenging
trip off a two-month layoff.
A slow start left Stellar
Sound in last place early on, but then she unleashed a huge rally around the
first turn, sweeping past the entire field to secure a clear lead. This eye-catching
but premature move understandably left Stellar Sound tired for the homestretch
drive, but to her credit, she refused to give way entirely and held on for
Breaking slowly has been a
habit for Stellar Sound, but it might work to her advantage in the La Brea. Starting
from post 11, Stellar Sound will have every opportunity to relax off the pace
while cutting back to 7 furlongs. The stamina she's displayed running long will
come in handy over Saturday's shorter trip, helping Stellar Sound produce a
strong finish into a fast pace. She'll also benefit from facing her own age
group after a couple tries against older rivals.
In short, I'm keen to play
Stellar Sound at 5-1. I think she's poised for a perfect trip and a career-best
effort in her third start back from a summer break.
If there's a more exciting
race than the Malibu taking place this weekend, I'm not sure what it would be. The
field is small with just six starters, but quality runs deep, led by the
front-running sensations #3 Nashville (6-5)
and #4 Charlatan (9-5).
In the absence of one, the
other would be an odds-on favorite to prevail. Both are sons of champion
sprinter Speightstown, and they've definitely displayed the speed of their
sire. Nashville has been breathtaking in his first three starts, including an
effortless 3 1/2-length romp in the 6-furlong Perryville Stakes at Keeneland.
In the Perryville, Nashville threw down intense fractions of :21.54 and :43.87
over a fast track before cruising to the finish line in 1:07.89, breaking the
Nashville has never been headed
at any point in a race, but the same can be said of Charlatan, who hails from
the barn of three-time Malibu-winning trainer Bob Baffert. A powerful debut
winner sprinting 6 furlongs at Santa Anita last winter, Charlatan has also
shown significant talent running long. He successfully stretched his speed to
win a division of the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby (G1) by six lengths, though he was
later disqualified after testing positive for lidocaine.
The battle between Nashville
and Charlatan promises to be epic. Will one concede the lead to the other? Or
will they hook up in a potentially destructive speed duel? Of the pair, I
prefer the chances of Nashville, who has displayed more pure sprinting speed
than Charlatan. I also wonder whether the latter colt will be ready for a peak
effort while returning from an injury-induced layoff.
But suppose Nashville and
Charlatan both crack from their early exertions? This could put #5 Express Train (15-1) in the hunt as
the longest shot on the board.
I've been a fan of Express
Train ever since his debut as a 2-year-old at Del Mar, when the son of Union
Rags rallied to finish second behind future Grade 1 winner Eight Rings. Express
Train promptly broke his own maiden by 14 lengths before finishing a deceptively
good fourth in the American Pharoah (G1), just a neck behind next-out Breeders'
Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Storm the Court.
Express Train subsequently
spent 11 months on the sidelines, but under the patient care of trainer John
Shirreffs, he returned better than ever in a 6 1/2-furlong allowance sprint at
Del Mar. After stumbling at the start, Express Train rallied powerfully from off
the pace to beat older rivals by two lengths.
Granted, Express Train has
lost two runs since then, but I believe both were better than they appear at
first glance. In a 1-mile allowance race against older rivals at Santa Anita,
Express Train battled gamely to finish second behind next-out Native Diver (G3)
winner Extra Hope. And in the 1 1/8-mile Twilight Derby (G2) on turf, Express
Train ran into traffic early on and was compromised by a slow early/fast late
race shape. Despite these challenging circumstances—and despite racing over an
unfamiliar surface—Express Train was only beaten six lengths while sprinting
the final 3 furlongs in :34.94, the fastest finishing split in the field.
Returning to dirt and
cutting back in distance should suit Express Train just fine. As with Stellar
Sound, the stamina Express Train has shown running long should come in handy while
negotiating a fast-paced 7-furlong sprint. Only time will tell if he's good
enough to beat the favorites to the finish line. But a top-two finish is within
reach if a destructive speed duel unfolds, and at 15-1, I'm willing to bet
Express Train can rally all the way to victory.
Now it's your turn! Who do
you like in the Malibu and La Brea?
Have a Merry Christmas,
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.