Horse Racing Recap: Santa Anita Opening Day Takeaways, Derby Preps, and More

The Christmas Weekend featured an opening day at Santa Anita racetrack in a card that was loaded with talent and six graded stakes races. However, news broke that morning that all of the turf races were to be taken off the turf and run on dirt, which obviously threw a big wrench into several of the stakes turf races. I spend the first few minutes of the podcast discussing how you should adjust your wagers and picks when turf races are taken off the grass and how it impacted the card. Then we dive into the slews of stakes races on the card starting with the Grade II San Gabriel Stakes, which was the race most impacted by scratches, that ended up being a four-horse field. Front-runner Bob and Jackie proved that early speed is the best and was able to hold off a hard-charging Friar’s Road, who has come up just short for the third consecutive race. There are some built-in excuses for Friar’s Road coming up short this time but it’s a worrisome trend and one worth monitoring as he progresses.

One of the headline races with the Grade II San Antonio Stakes that features 2021 Vox Populi winner Hot Rod Charlie who engaged in an impressive stretch duel with a very game Eight Rings but was ultimately edged at the wire by Express Train. Hot Rod Charlie closes out an incredibly successful 3-year-old campaign that somehow only has two victories (G2 Louisiana Derby and G1 Pennsylvania Derby) but finished in the top 3 in six of seven graded stakes races on the year. He will now head overseas to start preparing for March’s Dubai World Cup. Express Train closes out a nearly equally impressive 2021 has he only finished off the board once and managed to collect three Grade II victories. Finally, Eight Rings seems to have made the transition back to a graded stakes route horse and may have an intriguing 5-year-old campaign for trainer Bob Baffert who rarely trains horses that old.

The Santa Anita Mathis Mile ended up being a two-horse race between Beyond Brilliant, winner of last month’s Grade I Hollywood Derby, and Law Professor. While the race was initially meant to be on turf, I talk about how I liked these two horses the most no matter the surface because of their versatile backgrounds and running style. The proved much the best with Law Professor pulling ahead late to win by a half length. The Grade I La Brea Stakes showed that Kalypso, coming off a 240-day layoff didn’t have any rust as she romped to a six length victory over Brilliant Gem. The big news from that race, aside from Kalypso’s dominant effort was the poor performance from favorite Private Mission who broke poorly to the back of the back and was empty turning from home. Of course, Private Mission was also the horse responsible for the irrationally fast pace at last month’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff and she may still be feeling the effects of the race. It will be interesting to see what’s next for the two Baffert horses as one is trending up (Kalypso) and the other is trending down (Private Mission).

The most dominant performance of the weekend was that of Flightline in the Grade I Runhappy Malibu Stakes where he decimated the field by 12 lengths in a 7-furlong sprint. The lightly-raced horse had generated a great deal of buzz leading into the race with some people doubting he’d be able to step up in class and distance after only running twice in his career and having multiple months off between each effort. On the other side, his supporters and fans pointed to his 105 and 114 Beyer Speed figures in his maiden and second race as evidence that we had something special on our hands. After the race, I’m not sure anyone is doubting Flightline’s class or ability. Perhaps the most impressive part of the effort was the fact Flightline’s jockey, Flavien Prat, didn’t move a muscle the entire homestretch. It was reminiscent of the way Calvin Borel used to ride Rachel Alexandra against other fillies. Finishing a distant second was Baby Yoda, who actually turned this into a nice bounce back effort despite being well beaten. His previous two efforts had been rather lackluster and while he was no match for Flightline, he broke better and showed himself well against the other competition. Dr. Schivel, fresh off a second at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint finished last, which may be more evidence the race took a lot out of him. In the final graded stakes race on the card at Santa Anita, long shot Queen Goddess wired the field and used early tactical speed to set a reasonable pace around the track before pulling away from Nicest down the stretch.

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, the Fair Grounds featured some impressive Kentucky Derby and Oaks prep races that I discuss. I also break down the jockeying Reylu Gutierrez showed off on some of the earlier stakes races on the card. In the Oaks prep, the Untapable Stakes, North County showed a lot of class when she sat back and charged past Fannie and Freddie down the stretch. It was a very professional effort and one that earned her 10 points toward the 2022 Kentucky Oaks.The race also featured a disappointing effort from fan favorite California Angel, who will be well-served to return to her preferred turf surface. In the inaugural Gun Runner Stakes, Epicenter, the 7-2 second favorite, romped to an easy victory by six lengths, which was made all the more impressive by the fact he pushed the early front runner Surfer Dude early in the back stretch and still had plenty to pull away from the rest of the field.

Make sure to tune back later this week for my horse racing news podcast as well as a special episode where I rank the Top 10 races of 2021. Finally, I’ll be back on Friday to preview the New Year’s Day card at Santa Anita that features three graded stakes races. Make sure to follow me on Twitter at the handle @failedtomenace to keep track of all the horse racing content you need to get you ready for the 2022 season.

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