by Johnny D
December 23, 2020
This year we’ve all faced challenges.
‘Challenges’ Don’t you just love that word? It’s what the suits use to describe a negative. The downside. What went wrong, sideways, or off the rails.
‘Challenges’ Yep, 2020 has had them. Like Dunkin has doughnuts.
Recalling an entertaining 2020 Pegasus event at Gulfstream Park, it’s difficult to imagine that the pleasant experience was a mere 12 months ago. So much has transpired since that 2020 seems to have lasted more like a decade than 365 days.
If you recall, back on Monday, March 9, just two days before the World Health Organization declared COVID 19 a pandemic, racing took a thunderous punch to the gut when, from New York to Florida, Federal Authorities arrested and indicted 27 individuals on charges related to manufacturing, procuring, distributing and administering illegal substances to racehorses. High profile Thoroughbred trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro were among those arrested.
Almost forgot that ‘challenge,’ didn’t you?
While the raids satisfied those who considered the sport in need of a ‘housecleaning,’ the incident simultaneously troubled others because, needed or not, the hubbub branded the sport with another ‘black-eye.’ As PETA and reactionary politicians pounded on racing’s front door and attendance and handle sagged, additional negative national press arrived as welcome as an anchor to a drowning man.
Like all sports, due to the pandemic, racing ceased operation. Unlike others, however, racing soon returned, minus fans in the stands. Horses, you see, humanely, had to be exercised and under the right conditions could be raced in the afternoon, cared for by a close-knit group of people and ridden by tested, masked and gloved jockeys. Thanks to television, online streaming and ADWs like Xpressbet, the game resumed and was consumed as not merely the ‘only game in town’ but, strangely, the ‘only game worldwide.’
Before racing recommenced, Santa Anita emerged as a pioneer in the presentation of sport in a pandemic world. Catch the outstanding Hennegan brothers 22-minute YouTube video about the process. It’s appropriately called Riders Up: The World’s First Sports Bubble. Stars of the show are Santa Anita’s management team, jockeys and the racetrack itself which appears in crisp, clear, HD glory, San Gabriel mountains included. It chronicles the process of meeting ‘challenges’ head-on and cleverly adapting to overcome them.
Nationally, 2020 racing resumed with everyone on pins and needles. Fear of a stable area or jock’s room COVID outbreak hung in the air like the smell of burning rubber. There were isolated positives that included several of the nation’s top riders, trainers and fans--New Orleans Saints coach Sean Peyton, the first person in the NFL to publicly test positive for COVID, presented the trophy for the Gr. 2 Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park March 14 and received positive test results 5 days later.
Caught up in the rapid spread of the virus throughout California, Golden Gate Fields experienced serious ‘challenges.’ In late November, according to the San Francisco Chronicle, approximately 300 people who live or work at the track tested positive for COVID. Naturally, afternoon activities were halted, and racing has yet to resume.
Overall, tracks nationwide did a fantastic job of racing in the time of COVID. Schedules were altered. Some Kentucky Derby preps were cancelled, others shuffled, as were Triple Crown races—Belmont was contested in June at one mile and one-eighth; Kentucky Derby was moved to the first Saturday in September, and Preakness was run in October.
Thankfully, no single horse won the revised Triple Crown, so the dispute about whether or not the achievement required an asterisk never materialized. Breeders’ Cup, the sport’s traditional late-season championship event, was presented as scheduled in front of a nearly empty Keeneland grandstand.
Personally, the sport (and the gamble) provided critical diversion from news of COVID ravages, political strife and months indoors. It’s always easy to criticize racing’s mistakes. Mostly because the sport manages to make so many of them. But it’s also fair to then shine a light on accomplishments—like not only surviving…but thriving during a worldwide pandemic. Hats off and gratitude to everyone in the game. Thank you for a job well done.
There’s also another bit of positive 2020 racing news worth attention. According to John Cherwa, in a recent Los Angeles Times racing newsletter, “The daytime Southern California racing circuit has not had a racing fatality since Sept. 5. It didn’t have a training death during that time until a horse was injured and euthanized at Santa Anita last week.”
That’s fantastic news for…well, everyone. Credit Santa Anita, Del Mar and Los Alamitos management and horsemen for pitching afternoon perfect games. Truthfully, beforehand, this racing veteran would have considered that accomplishment impossible. After all, Thoroughbreds are fragile creatures zipping at speeds nearing 40 miles per hour and bearing over 1,000 pounds of weight on one leg at a time. Seems like something’s bound to give once in a while.
Apparently not. Measures instituted to protect horses and riders appear to have worked. Thankfully. Of course, the obvious question is: What took us so long? Before discussing at length, let’s just be momentarily grateful for the accomplishment and hope like hell the shutout continues throughout Santa Anita’s upcoming winter meet.
Speaking of which…the day after Christmas, traditional opening of Santa Anita, is one of our favorite days of the year. This writer has enjoyed a 50-year love affair with that racetrack. To put it bluntly, the joint is as remarkable to horseplayers as Disney’s nearby Magic Kingdom is to children. There, before your eyes and seemingly within reach, behold majestic San Gabriel Mountains pressed against a crystal-clear blue sky, towering above swaying palm trees, surrounded by green and brown manicured circumferences dotted with jockeys in colorful silks astride silky chestnut, brown, black and grey speeding Thoroughbreds.
Saturday, yours truly won’t be the only acolyte not in attendance. Another pandemic ‘challenge.’ That’s OK. We’ve experienced opening day often and hope to do so again before we’re ushered to that great box seat in the sky.
In the meantime, we’ll catch proceedings on Xpressbet and take a few mutuel swings at collecting a kewpie doll. Hopefully, you’ll join me.
Below is one man’s humble opinion regarding Saturday’s Santa Anita’s Late Pick 4.
RACE 8 (5:39PM ET) // G1 LA BREA STAKES // 7 FURLONGS (DIRT)
The La Brea Stakes is for 3-year-old fillies and this one is a real puzzle because it’s loaded with early pace and talent. Trainer Bob Baffert has 4 starters in and that alone is an interesting note. Might the quartet suggest the white-haired conditioner isn’t totally confident with any one of them? Then again, it’s a bold statement to ignore any Baffert in a Santa Anita stakes race.
# 2 Merneith is one of Baffert’s crew and she sports a spotty record with 3 wins in 8 starts. She’s had 3 seconds and 1 third, so she’s got talent and has done well at Santa Anita with 1 win, 2 seconds and 1 third. She usually shows speed but came from off the pace to win her last a six-furlong stakes race at Keeneland. She has worked well for this. She’s one of many with a chance.
#3 Himiko is another notable Baffert starter. She usually is forcing the pace and probably will do the same in here. She won a first-level allowance race by more than 6 lengths last out over a ‘good’ track at Del Mar. She has a win and a second at Santa Anita in two tries and has a runner-up finish at the distance. Jockey Flavien Prat rides and he’s 32% with Baffert. It did take her 4 starts to get her maiden win and that’s not Baffert-like at all. His good ones usually win first or second time out.
#4 Secret Keeper has had just 4 starts--2 wins and 1 second. She stumbled at the start in the Gr. 2 Raven Run at Keeneland last out and was third in the Gr. 3 Torrey Pines at Del Mar going a mile before that. She defeated #2 Merneith at Del Mar this summer. Expect her to be close up in the early going.
#5 Finite is the most accomplished soph filly in the race with multiple Gr. 2 stakes wins. She defeated older fillies and mares last out at a one-turn mile in the Chilukki at Churchill Downs. Before that she just missed in the Gr. 2 Raven Run going 7 furlongs at Keeneland. A repeat of either of those efforts would make her tough in here. She should get a hot pace to chase and she’s got a strong resume of two-turn stakes successes from 2019 and 2020. Look for her to be charging in the lane in this 7-furlong dash.
#6 Biddy Duke ought to add to a torrid early pace. She was claimed for $40k and has a Gr. 3 Senator Ken Maddy win on turf against older in her last.
#8 Motivated Seller invades from the East for trainer Chad Brown. She’s won 2 of 3 with a close second last out behind Merneith. If you like Merneith, you’ve got to love this one and her upside.
RACE 9 (6:17 PM ET) // G1 AMERICAN OAKS // 1 1/4 MILES (TURF)
The Grade 1 American Oaks is a final chance for 3-year-old fillies to meet their classmates and earn coveted Grade 1 Black Type. All horses turn a year older on Jan. 1, so this Dec. 26 confrontation has attracted a solid field of 10 hopefuls from across the country.
#1 Red Lark looked solid in winning the Gr. 1 Del Mar Oaks at 19-1 over #7 California Kook. She returned over a ‘good’ course at Keeneland to be defeated by less than 2 lengths in the Gr. 1 Queen Elizabeth II Cup. She races from off the pace and should handle the mile and one-quarter distance by saving ground under regular rider Drayden Van Dyke. She’s a must use.
#3 Capital Structure has won 2 of 3 starts—a maiden and an allowance race at Monmouth and Belmont, respectively. Trainer Chad Brown will attract money and there is upside to this filly, but this is a big step. She’s sharp, talented, and age 3. Why not ship west with barnmates to take a shot at a Grade 1 prize?
#4 Going to Vegas is a real trier. She’s been second in 3 of her last 4 and third in a race before that—all finishes within one length of the winners. She likes Santa Anita—3 wins, 2 seconds in 6 tries --and was second at a mile and three-eighths last out. She’s hardly ever bet—around 15-1 the last two times—so she’s a good one to consider in exotics. She was claimed for $50k and maybe won’t win, but she’ll be in a good position close or on the pace and she doesn’t quit. Probably want her on your side.
#7 California Kook had a troubled trip last out in the Gr. 3 Red Carpet against older. Toss that one. Before that she was fifth, beaten 3 lengths in the Gr. 1 QE II at Keeneland, just behind #1 Red Luck. In the Gr. 1 Del Mar Oaks, #1 Red Lark finished one length in front of a flying California Kook. If you like #1 Red Lark, and we do, then we also have to appreciate the chances of this filly.
#8 Duopoly has 3 wins in 5 starts and they all were accomplished in wire-to-wire fashion. She could have the lead again, but she’ll need to go faster than :24 3/5 and :50 last time in winning the Winter Memories over a ‘good’ course at Aqueduct. Top local jock Prat rides for Chad Brown.
#9 Sharing won last year’s Gr. 1 BC Juvenile Filly here at Santa Anita to cap a strong 2-year-old season. She’s won 2 of 4 this year and enters this off a three-quarter length fourth in the Gr. 1 Matriarch against older. That’s the best last out of any runner in here. Sharing must be used but we don’t think she’s a single.
RACE 10 (6:51PM ET) // G1 RUNHAPPY MALIBU STAKES // 7 FURLONGS (DIRT)
The Gr. 1 Runhappy Malibu matches some very talented 3-year-old performers at seven furlongs. Always a major event on the national racing scene, this year is no exception.
#1 Collusion Illusion is a Gr. 1 winner with 5 wins in 8 starts. He’s 2 for 4 at Santa Anita. Jockey Prat returns aboard this one for trainer Mark Glatt. The only blemish on this one’s resume is a poor finish in the Gr. 1 BC Sprint last out. He makes his best run from off the pace.
#2 Thousand Words won the first 3 races of his career for trainer Bob Baffert, including the Gr. 3 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita. He’s also 2 for 3 at Santa Anita and 4 for 8 overall. He has been working well for this, too.
#3 Nashville is unbeaten, untied and unscored upon in 3 starts, winning by more than 3 lengths each time and never has been behind another horse at any call. He’s the one to beat.
#4 Charlatan, trained by Bob Baffert, hasn’t been seen in the afternoon since winning a division of the Gr. 1 Arkansas Derby in May. He later was disqualified from purse money for that victory because of questionable test results. Like #3 Nashville, he’s unbeaten on the racetrack and never been behind another horse at any call during a race. Saturday, between these rockets, something’s got to give.
RACE 11 (7:25PM ET) // LADY OF SHAMROCK STAKES // 1 MILE (TURF)
No easy pickings in this Lady of Shamrock Stakes--final leg of the Saturday Pick 4 at one mile on the turf for 3-year-old fillies. A few of these have graded-stakes experience and are looking for a softer spot in here.
#1 Applecross has tried graded stakes a few times with no success. She comes off a close finish in an optional $80k allowance race last out. She has no early speed.
#2 Miss Extra makes a second US stakes start for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella, so improvement is possible. She was 5-1 in the Gr. 1 Del Mar Oaks but didn’t fire. She’ll get Lasix for this start, has turf tiger jockey Umberto Rispoli, is a Group 2 winner in France and has been working well. Things to like.
#3 Beguiled won an optional claiming race last out and keeps the services of top jock Flavien Prat for trainer Phil D’Amato. She was stuck at the first allowance level for a while, though.
#4 On Mars is an honest, sharp filly that’s been on the board in 8 out of 9 starts with 3 wins and 3 seconds. This Cal-bred filly doesn’t have the credentials of some of these but she’s a trier and an exotics consideration.
#7 Nasty finished lapped on #9 Warren’s Showtime two back in the Gr. 3 Autumn Miss. A repeat of that effort, her first for trainer Richard Baltas, fits here. She disappointed as favorite last out in a $62,500 optional claiming try.
#8 Counterparty Risk broke maiden in her second start last out at Aqueduct and makes the cross-country trek with the rest of the Brown contingent. It’s difficult to judge how good this filly might be, and she has a sparkling :59 3/5 work at Palm Meadows to tout her readiness.
#9 Warren’s Showtime has been an incredibly consistent performer over the last 2 years for trainer Craig Lewis. She’s won 6 of 14 starts and over $500k. She’s also won 4 of 5 races over the Santa Anita turf course and 5 of 8 at this distance on turf. She’s a grade 3 winner with placings in grade 1 and grade 2 races. Beat her to win it.
#10 Annangel went to the front and never looked back to win her first US start for trainer Richard Baltas. Jockey Abel Cedillo replaces JJ Hernandez in the saddle.
SUGGESTED 50-CENT SANTA ANITA LATE PICK 4 TICKET ($60)
Race 8: 3, 5, 8
Race 9: 1, 4, 7, 8, 9
Race 10: 3, 4
Race 11: 2, 4, 8, 9