by Jeremy Plonk
December 26, 2019
Opening Day of the 2019-'20 Santa Anita winter/spring meeting features stakes in Races 2,5,6,7,8,9 and 10. There's a lot to choose from, even if standout favorites such as Bellafina (Race 7 Grade 1 La Brea) and Omaha Beach (Race 9 Grade 1 Malibu) would seem firm choices. They will be keys for many in the late, multi-race wagers.
GIFT BOX is the field's only Grade 1 winner. DRAFT PICK is a Grade 3 winner and Grade 1-placed. MIDCOURT has won at the Grade 3 level, as has MUGARITZ. GRAY MAGICIAN is Grade 2/Grade 3 placed. GIFT BOX and DRAFT PICK have carried the strongest company lines in this field.
This is a race in which nearly every horse has some semblance of tactical speed, but is not a dedicated front-runner. Judging pace in this race is more guess-work than useful.
Defending San Antonio champ GIFT BOX nearly ran the table last season at the Great Race Place, adding the Santa Anita Handicap and finishing second to eventual Breeders' Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita. He's back after a June layoff, and notably his win in this race came off an even greater March layoff. Trainer John Sadler also has MIDCOURT in this race, which begs old the axiom: Why run two when one will do? Well, the timing here can be a great springboard to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park at the end of January. MIDCOURT has won 4 in a row, making the natural class progression each time. He didn't beat a star-studded field with only 3 challengers in the Native Diver and a bad, odds-on favorite in the under-performing 3-year-old Roadster. Of the Sadler pair, my advantage is GIFT BOX even off the layoff.
Other than the Kentucky Derby, which you can't blame anyone for trying, GRAY MAGICIAN has been very well spotted this year. But this will be his 14th race without an extended break, dating back to his debut in August 2018. Toss in a trip to Dubai along with that Derby appearance and there's a reasonable wonder when the vacation has to come. Trainer Peter Miller lures Javier Castellano for the return mount after winning at Keeneland. He's slightly freshened at least, and 1-1/16 miles is about his limit for his best.
DRAFT PICK may be a touch better at Del Mar than Santa Anita, even if all 3 career wins have come at Santa Anita against lesser competition. He's a one-paced type who rarely backs up and rarely finishes with the hammer. In this race with so many similar running styles, it would appear that DRAFT PICK could be suited for an even-Steven kind of trip and placing once again.
MUGARITZ has won 6 in a row in Northern California and will get the class test while on a roll. Those wins have come on turf, Tapeta and conventional dirt (at Fresno). Speed jockey Ricardo Gonzalez travels south to keep the mount, which means MUGARITZ might be sent to the front in the San Antonio. According to the Betmix database, sire Dialed In's offspring are 25: 5-4-2 on the Santa Anita dirt since 2013, hitting 20% with a $1.49 ROI for each $1 bet.
KING ABNER has had trouble finishing late in his races and the 1-1/16 miles distance with this sort of pace set-up may not work in his favor. FIGHT ON had success at Oaklawn last winter/spring for Doug O'Neill and hasn't had the same results on the west coast. He may be looking toward the road after this.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: GIFT BOX has the class and affinity for the course.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: MUGARITZ will avoid a lot of the decision-making if sent to the front, and he has a pedigree to perhaps like this dirt course in his first attempt.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): $100 win GIFT BOX.