Looking for Longshots in the Malibu and La Brea

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 meet.

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 as 4-year-olds.

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 seven lengths.

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 third place.

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.

Malibu (G1)

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 track record.

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, everyone!


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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.

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