by Jon White
December 26, 2019
Opening day at Santa Anita each winter traditionally has been Dec. 26, the day after Christmas. But due to anticipated inclement weather, the opener was postponed to this Saturday, Dec. 28.
A blockbuster 11-race card highlighted by a trio of Grade I events -- the Malibu Stakes, La Brea Stakes and American Oaks -- will kick off Saturday’s Thoroughbred action at the picturesque venue located at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains.
Omaha Beach, who indicated to railbirds that he is on his toes by zipping three furlongs in a bullet :34.00 workout last Sunday at Santa Anita, heads a field of five 3-year-olds entered in the seven-furlong Malibu. The Kentucky-bred War Front colt will be making his first start since finishing second behind Spun to Run in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 2.
Spun to Run subsequently finished second to Maximum Security in the Grade I Cigar Mile at Aqueduct on Dec. 7.
Trained by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella, Omaha Beach is a two-time Grade I winner this year. He took the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park last April 13 and the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship on Oct. 5.
Omaha Beach was the morning-line favorite for the Grade I Kentucky Derby on May 4, but he was forced to miss that race because of an entrapped epiglottis, an issue that required surgery.
After the Malibu, Omaha Beach is slated to make the final start of his career in Gulfstream Park’s Grade I, $3 million Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles on the dirt Jan. 25. He then is to embark on his stud career at Spendthrift Farm in Kentucky.
The Pegasus in 2020 will be contested for the fourth time. Its previous winners were Arrogate (2017), Gun Runner (2018) and City of Light (2019).
Bellafina tops a field of nine 3-year-old fillies in Saturday’s seven-furlong La Brea. Trained by Simon Callaghan, the Kentucky-bred daughter of Quality Road is making her first start since she ran second to the speedy Covfefe in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 2. That’s been Bellafina’s only loss in five starts on Santa Anita’s main track.
Below are my selections for all seven stakes races on Santa Anita’s opening-day card:
Lady of Shamrock Stakes (Race 2). 1. Keeper Ofthestars, 2. Brill, 3. Lucky Peridot, 4. Mischiffie.
Grade II San Antonio Stakes (Race 5). 1. Gift Box, 2. Midcourt, 3. Gray Magician, 4. Draft Pick.
Grade I American Oaks (Race 6). 1. Lady Prancealot, 2. Giza Goddess, 3. Vibrance, 4. Mucho Unusual.
Grade I La Brea Stakes (Race 7). 1. Bellafina, 2. Bell’s the One, 3. First Star, 4. Hard Not to Love.
Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes (Race 8). 1. Mirth, 2. Excellent Sunset, 3. Don’t Blame Judy, 4. Streak of Luck.
Grade I Malibu Stakes (Race 9). 1. Omaha Beach, 2. Complexity, 3. Roadster, 4. Manny Wah.
Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile (Race 10). 1. Mo Forza, 2. Neptune’s Tune, 3. Kingly, 4. Bob and Jackie.
THREE SANTA ANITA GRADE I RACES DOWNGRADED
Let me begin by saying that in the vast majority of cases, I believe the American Graded Stakes Committee (AGSC) of the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association (TOBA) does a fine job in terms of grading stakes races. But from time to time, I think they blow it.
Toward the end of what unquestionably has been the most tumultuous year in the history of Santa Anita, the historic Southern California track recently received bad news regarding three of its Grade I races.
The AGSC recently announced that it has downgraded three of Santa Anita’s Grade I races to Grade II status for 2020.
The only other Grade I race downgraded to Grade II in 2020 is Belmont Park’s Vosburgh Stakes.
The three Grade I Santa Anita stakes that now will be a Grade II are the Chandelier Stakes, Santa Anita Oaks and Santa Anita Sprint Championship.
In my opinion, downgrading all three of these Santa Anita races is out of line.
I am not saying this because all three races are at Santa Anita or all three are in California. In the past, I sometimes have been critical when races in New York, Kentucky and Arkansas have been downgraded.
The AGSC has upgraded Santa Anita’s Grade III Joe Hernandez to Grade II status in 2020. I don’t especially agree with that. I honestly think it would have been just fine for that race to remain a Grade III.
Let’s look at it another way. Should the Chandelier Stakes, Santa Anita Oaks, Santa Anita Sprint Championship and Joe Hernandez all have the same Grade II ranking? I think not.
When the AGSC downgraded Santa Anita’s Las Virgenes Stakes from a Grade I to a Grade II, the move received no complaint from me. Even though the Las Virgenes has a glittering list of past winners, I felt downgrading it to a Grade II was not off base because it is, after all, a prep race for the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, which in turn is a prep race for the Grade I Kentucky Oaks.
I once blasted the AGSC for downgrading Saratoga’s Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds to a Grade II. That mistake, as I saw it, lasted just one year before the Hopeful was restored to a Grade I.
For years on HRTV and in print, I strongly criticized the AGSC for the Arkansas Derby’s Grade II status. After several years, the Arkansas Derby finally properly received its Grade I ranking, which it has retained ever since.
But downgrading the Santa Anita Oaks to a Grade II? I’m sorry. I just don’t agree with that. As TVG senior producer Becky Witzman tweeted: “Is anyone else baffled by the Santa Anita Oaks being downgraded to a G2?” She noted in her tweet that the last four winners have been Bellafina, Midnight Bisou, Paradise Woods and Songbird.
Keeneland’s Ashland Stakes, which also is a prep race for the Kentucky Oaks, is a Grade I. Why is that? Is it because the Ashland has had more starters than the Santa Anita Oaks? Just because the Ashland has had more starters has that made it a better race than the Santa Anita Oaks? Is a Grade I race with a big field of mostly overmatched runners really better than a Grade I race with a small field when the small field is won by the likes of Bellafina, Midnight Bisou, Paradise Woods and Songbird?
The Chandelier is Santa Anita’s prep race for the Grade I BC Juvenile Fillies. The Grade I American Pharoah is Santa Anita’s prep race for the Grade I BC Juvenile. The American Pharoah has retained its Grade I status. Has the American Pharoah been that much better in recent years than the Chandelier vis-a-vis the Breeders’ Cup? I don’t think so.
As for the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, it has produced the Grade I BC Sprint winner in two of the last three years. The Santa Anita Sprint Championship was won by Roy H in both 2017 and 2018 prior to his back-to-back BC Sprint victories.
Omaha Beach won the 2019 Santa Anita Sprint Championship before finishing second in the Grade I BC Dirt Mile.
While on the subject of grading stakes races, I must say that it also did not sit well with me when the AGSC in 2017 downgraded both New York’s Wood Memorial and Kentucky’s Blue Grass to Grade II status.
There are six Kentucky Derby prep races in this country that I believe should all should be treated the same. The six races are the Arkansas Derby, Blue Grass, Florida Derby, Louisiana Derby, Santa Anita Derby and Wood Memorial. These are the six most important prep races in this country for the Kentucky Derby. Churchill Downs, I think appropriately, treats these six races identically in terms of its Kentucky Derby points system.
Look, a big problem with whatever the AGSC does is it can become a self-fulfilling prophesy. For example, a long time ago, the AGSC upgraded Santa Anita’s Santa Monica Handicap to Grade I status when I did not believe it deserved it. But after the AGSC made the Santa Monica a Grade I, it then started attracting better fields. In other words, the move by the AGSC to upgrade the Santa Monica to a Grade I essentially turned it into a Grade I race for many years.
After the AGSC downgraded the Wood and Blue Grass to Grade II status, it became a distinct possibility, if not probability, that both races would be weaker going forward. That’s because some people understandably shy away from those Grade II races and opt instead for the Grade I Florida Derby, Grade I Santa Anita Derby or Grade I Arkansas Derby. And the reality is that makes it difficult for the Grade II Wood and Grade II Blue Grass to now attract good enough fields to ever regain their Grade I ranking.
The AGSC wields considerable power. I know they use stats and formulas as part of their decision-making process. I just wish the AGSC sometimes would do better at also using common sense, something I implored them to do for all those years they inadvisably kept the Arkansas Derby as a Grade II before finally seeing the light.