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Deck the 'Hall'; an Eventful Santa Anita Opening Day

by Johnny D

December 28, 2017

Santa Anita opened Christmas Day, 1934. No, I wasn’t there. Thanks for asking, though. I’ve personally experienced plenty of ‘Anita premieres, but they’ve all come the day after Christmas.

Personally, ‘Great Race Place’ launches always have been special occasions. I vividly recall cracking the sealed edges of a crisp, virgin Daily Racing Form. Still can feel the exhilarating anticipation of riches hidden within its pages. Forget ‘sugar plums.’ In my ‘night before Christmas’ visions of greenbacks danced in my head!

Opening day at Santa Anita is about more than just cashing tickets. Technically, it belongs to the old year—six days shy of the mark. However, Santa Anita’s kickoff always feels as much a part of the New Year as does the ball drop in Times Square. Before first-race gates pop possibilities are endless. Everyone in the house is tied for leading owner, trainer and jockey. Horseplayer bankrolls are ‘flush.’

Hopes, dreams and the future. Racing’s selling points. ‘Breed the best to the best and hope for the best!’ Why, otherwise, would rational, successful businessmen and women gamble tens of millions of dollars each year on weanlings and yearlings? Think pro sports drafts are gambles? Try selecting future stars out of the third grade. Hopes, dreams and the future. As the old saw suggests, ‘No one with an un-raced 2-year-old in the barn ever committed suicide.’ We can guess, estimate, suppose and even make an educated Derby future book wager based on computer-generated data…but no one really knows what’s going to happen.

That’s life. ‘Make plans and hear God laugh.’ We’re never certain what events ultimately will occupy empty calendar pages. So, we take a first step, followed by another, into the future.

Yesterday was opening day at Santa Anita and it was grand. Among an assortment of opening-day angles, those that most interested this observer were achievements and foibles of some of the game’s most honored participants in the afternoon’s most important events.

On paper, the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes--first of four graded stakes on the card—seemed destined to serve as a mere sparring session for BC Classic runner-up, wire-to-wire Pacific Classic winner and odds-on race favorite Collected. Trained and ridden by Hall-of-Fame residents Bob Baffert and Mike Smith, respectively, Collected had won 8 of 12 lifetime starts and over $2.2 million. He was also 4-for-4 at Santa Anita, had trained well and figured to KO this bunch in the early rounds, or at least have them at a standing eight count.  

Collected broke with the rest, but instead of urging his mount forward to contest for the lead into the first turn, Smith invited Collected to…well, ‘collect’ himself. Wide around the first turn, Collected appeared to be sleepwalking. When passed on the inside by stablemate and confirmed closer Hopportunity, track commentator Michael Wrona noted the surprising development.

Meanwhile, gliding along up front was Giant Expectations under Gary Stevens--another Hall of Fame jockey. Thirty-plus years ago, Stevens made his mark by doing exactly this--taking advantage of an opportunistic situation. ‘Expectations and Stevens ‘walked the dog’ through dawdling early fractions of :24 3/5, :49, 1:12 4/5, 1:36 4/5 and drew clear in the stretch without so much as an anxious moment. The best Collected could manage was third, unable to pass Accelerate through the lane.

Social Media immediately erupted with cries of ‘foul!’ Sticks and stones were hurled at Baffert and Smith for effectively throwing the San Antonio by ‘giving’ Collected a Pegasus tune-up on the public’s dime…or, in this case, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Prepping horses in the afternoon, however, isn’t Baffert’s modus operandi. He lets ‘em roll mornings and never saddles a ‘short’ stakes horse. Smith had a more accurate and frank post-race explanation, “It was a bad ride,” he said. “It was my fault. I slipped leaving the gate. We should have been on the lead. Then they were going too slow and we couldn’t get there in the end.”

Refreshing, these days, to hear the unadulterated truth. Painful, perhaps, to the pocketbook, but there it is. Jockey Mike Smith, pilot for many of the world’s most famous racehorses in many of their most memorable races, fell asleep at the switch. Booted a grounder. Dropped a ‘can of corn.’  Muffed the punt. Shanked the extra point.

As Hall of Famers do, Smith bounced back later in the day to win the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes with Unique Bella, a filly Smith admits permitting to go too fast, too early in the BC F&M Sprint. This time he asked her to relax, angled her to the outside and saved enough juice to make the difference over runner-up Paradise Woods, trained by Richard Mandella, another ‘Hall resident.

Four different ‘Hall jockeys--Stevens, Smith, Javier Castellano and Kent Desormeaux--won five of nine opening-day races. Stevens won the San Antonio aboard Collected; Smith the La Brea with Unique Bella; Castellano a 2-year-old filly downhill turf maiden race with Californiagoldrush and Desormeaux back-to-back races with allowance sprint star Red Lightning and Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile champ Bowies Hero. Jockey Victor Espinoza, also a card-carrying ‘Hall member, did not win a race Tuesday.

Two Hall-of-Fame trainers saddled three of nine winners on the card: Jerry Hollendorfer sent out a pair--impressive 2-year-old maiden-breaker Kanthanka and multiple-Grade 1 star Unique Bella. Neil Drysdale, inducted to the ‘Hall in 2000, scored a rare (for him) first-out win with Californiagoldrush.

The best against the best and all the rest.

Then again, what else would you expect opening day at Santa Anita?

See ya Friday for day two!

Race On!