Santa Anita Brings Back Dirt
Malibu, La Brea attract large fields as Santa Anita welcomes back the dirt
The most anticipated winter season at Santa Anita in years begins Sunday as the 'Great Race Place' welcomes the return of natural dirt racing with a nine-race program that begins at noon (PST). Four stakes will be featured including the $250,000 Malibu S. (G1) and $250,000 La Brea S. (G1), the traditional opening legs of the Strub and La Canada series, respectively, for the soon-to-be four-year-olds of 2011.
With a return to dirt racing, these two races have attracted more interest than usual from horsemen outside of California. Among the Eastern invaders for the Malibu are NOBLE'S PROMISE (Cuvee), a Grade 1 winner at two who won the Jimmy V. S. at Churchill Downs last time, and the Grade 3 veteran THISKYHASNOLIMIT (Sky Mesa), a member of multiple Eclipse Award-winning trainer Steve Asmussen's first-ever California-based string.
Both demonstrated class this season against the likely champion of the division, Lookin at Lucky, with Noble's Promise falling a head short of that rival in the Rebel S. (G2), while Thiskyhasnolimit also occupied the second slot to the Bob Baffert pupil in the Indiana Derby (G2) two back. Despite a sub-par seventh in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) last out, Thiskyhasnolimit must be respected off wins in the Matt Winn S. and Smarty Jones S. during the campaign.
How the California-based contingent handles the return to dirt will be among the major handicapping puzzles bettors will have to figure out. CARACORTADO (Cat Dreams), who landed the Robert B. Lewis S. (G2) at last year's winter meet, was a maiden breaker over the Fairplex Park dirt at two so has less of a learning curve than some of his rivals. The gelding returned to the races November 11 to take a six-furlong grass test at Hollywood following a layoff of nearly six months.
Grade 2 winner Caracortado will return to stakes company following a sharp turf allowance score (Benoit Photos)
SMILING TIGER (Hold That Tiger) was arguably the state's best sprinter this year when beating older rivals in the Ancient Title S. (G1) and Bing Crosby S. (G1), and was a solid if non-threatening third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1) when trying dirt for the first time. One who didn't make it to the Breeders' Cup was TWIRLING CANDY (Candy Ride [Arg]), the Del Mar Derby (G2) hero who tired to fourth in the Goodwood S. (G1) at odds of 3-5. That has been the only loss thus far in five attempts for the John Sadler trainee, who will be racing on dirt for the first time here.
Also trying dirt for the first time are SETSUKO, (Pleasantly Perfect), the Santa Anita Derby (G1) and Sham S. (G3) runner-up whose sire won the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) over the old Santa Anita dirt strip, and Baffert's undefeated third-time starter ALCINDOR (Unbridled's Song), who coasted by more than seven lengths against entry-level allowance foes at Hollywood a month ago.
Thirteen fillies were entered for the La Brea. The Eric Guillot-trained CHAMPAGNE D'ORO (Medaglia d'Oro), who began her career in California, reached new heights when able to run over dirt this season. Heroine of the Acorn S. (G1) and Test S. (G1) this season, she also record second-place efforts in the Prioress S. (G1) and Fair Grounds Oaks (G2), but was only fourth as the mild favorite in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) after breaking from post 13. Her post in the La Brea, 11, is not much better.
Champagne d'Oro will be seeking her third Grade 1 win this season in the La Brea (Debra Kral/Horsephotos.com)
Hollywood Oaks (G2) winner SWITCH (Quiet American), who gave Zenyatta a brief scare in the Lady's Secret S. (G1) two back, fared better than Champagne d'Oro in the Breeders' Cup when a clear second to Dubai Majesty. Others with notable dirt form include Azalea S. (G3) winner PICA SLEW (Pico Central [Brz]), who's now under the direction of John Shirreffs, and Baffert's Indiana Oaks (G2) winner ALWAYS A PRINCESS (Leroidesanimaux [Brz]), who exits a third in the Chilukki S. (G2).
The other main players in the La Brea are the Baffert-trained BONNIE BLUE FLAG (Mineshaft), the stakes-winning Test runner-up who got saddled with the far outside post here, and the up-and-coming MALIBU PIER (Malibu Moon), who has won three of four starts for trainer Carla Gaines.
SIDNEY'S CANDY (Candy Ride [Arg]), whose wins this season include the Santa Anita Derby and La Jolla H. (G2), figures to be an overwhelming favorite in the $150,000 Sir Beaufort S. (G2) for three-year-olds over one mile on the turf. The Sadler charge made a second unsuccessful venture to Churchill Downs last month when a close sixth in the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1), but entered that race after being withheld from his intended prep, the Oak Tree Mile (G2), due to a impending sale that ultimately never materialized.
Hoping to upset are MAKE MUSIC FOR ME (Bernstein), who won the Pasadena S. on the Santa Anita turf in March, and BLUE PANIS (Fr) (Panis), BOGIE (Ire) (Pivotal) and SEBASTIAN FLYTE (GB) (Observatory), the respective runners-up in the Oak Tree Derby (G2), Will Rogers S. (G3) and Hollywood Derby (G1).
The stakes action kicks off Sunday with the $100,000 California Breeders' Champion S. for state-bred or sired two-year-olds going seven furlongs.
Santa Anita, which hasn't hosted live racing since April 18, will have a total of 46 graded stakes, including nine Grade 1 events, during the 76-day meeting that will conclude on April 17. The $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 9 is the centerpiece of a strong three-year-old stakes roster that is incorporated into the new Preakness 5.5 (million) incentive program.
'We've added $450,000 to our three-year-old program, which makes Santa Anita the nation's most attractive avenue to the Triple Crown,' Santa Anita Racing Secretary Rick Hammerle said. 'Along with the news of increased purses, and due in large part to the fact we are returning to a natural dirt main track, we're getting very positive response from horsemen and fans from all over the country. The Preakness 5.5 is going to be a big plus for us. It's going to incentivize people to run in the Santa Anita Derby and in our Derby preps.'
The new dirt track has attracted some high-profile stables to Santa Anita, including the aforementioned Steve Asmussen.
'We plan on having 30 horses here this winter, hopefully, they're the right 30,' Asmussen said. 'We want to do a better job on the top-end of racing. This is a beautiful place. I think that there's a little excitement going with the raise in purses and (with) going back to dirt. This is a great place to be this time of the year.'
Purses are up for the winter/spring meeting.
'When you factor in that we anticipate a 25 percent increase in overnight purses, which gets us to a total distribution of about $425,000 a day, people are seeing, hearing and recognizing that Santa Anita is going to be a great place to run this winter and spring,' Santa Anita Director of Racing Mike Harlow said.
In addition to great racing action, fans will be treated on Sunday to a team of aerial skydivers, who will parachute into the storied racetrack between races. In addition to the skydivers, fans of all ages will have an up-close and personal chance to watch and enjoy the Budweiser Clydesdales, as they perform in front of the grandstand throughout the day.