For horse players, the REAL Christmas Day is December 26th. Traditionally, it marks Santa Anita’s opening day of its winter meet, which unofficially starts the new racing season. Year after year, Santa Anita puts on fantastic cards to feed our betting appetites after a day of darkness on December 25th, when no tracks run in the United States. The track has really outdone itself this year, featuring a nine-race card loaded with opportunities that could be one of the best opening days that we’ve seen in recent memory.
La Brea Showdown
It’s not often that the Grade 1 La Brea Stakes is the highlight of opening day (over the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes), but this year is the exception. The race features a showdown between two superstars, Unique Bella and Paradise Woods, both of whom come into this race off of a loss at the Breeders’ Cup.
Unique Bella was sent off as the the even-money favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint but failed to fire her best race and faltered to a seventh-place finish. The 3-year-old filly by Tapit was all the rage during the winter months leading up to the Kentucky Oaks, but an injury forced her to miss over seven months of racing. Before her loss at the Breeders’ Cup, she had won five races in a row in dominating fashion.
Paradise Woods was much better at the Breeders’ Cup than Unique Bella, and she was also facing a tougher field in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, where she finished third. Much like Unique Bella, Paradise Woods was also heavily-touted during the winter and went off as the 6-5 favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. A hotly-contested pace ruined her chances in that race and threw her for a loop, causing her to miss four months of action. She returned to finish a very disappointing sixth in the Grade 3 Torrey Pines, but she found her form next out, easily taking home the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita.
Other horses to watch in the race are the Bob Baffert-trained Faypien and the Doug O’Neill-trained Mopotism. Faypien won the Grade 2 Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita during the summer before going on to finish second in the Grade 1 Test at Saratoga. Mopotism narrowly lost to Faypien in the Summertime Oaks, and last time out, she was a solid fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Either of these horses are a logical option if the heavy favorites falter.
The La Brea gives us a showdown between two greats, but the Malibu provides a much better betting opportunity. In this field of nine, up to five different horses could realistically go off favored. Two of those – Dabster and Irish Freedom – come from the Baffert barn. Dabster won a sharp allowance race at Del Mar in his last start over City of Light, who is also entered in this race. Irish Freedom also won an allowance race at Del Mar over the summer and has since hit the board in a couple of sneaky-good stakes races. Another local west coast horse, Pavel, will have a great shot at his first Grade 1 victory after progressing quickly this year. He broke his maiden at Santa Anita on July 1st and has since been placed in all stakes races. He was third in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup before finishing tenth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Two ship-ins will also have a major say in things. In fact, as far as the morning line is concerned, they’re the top two horses. The 3-1 favorite is Favorable Outcome, who enters from the Chad Brown barn. He won an allowance on November 26th at Aqueduct to prep for this race, and earlier in the year, he won the Grade 2 Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The other shipper in the race is C Z Rocket, who’s undefeated in three lifetime starts. The Al Stall trainee impressively won a Churchill Downs allowance race last time out by 2 lengths. This will be his first try against stakes company.
Prepping for the Pegasus in the San Antonio
This year, Santa Anita moved the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes to opening day for the first time in the race’s 80-year history so that the event can serve as a prep for the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup. The San Antonio features a classy field, but none are greater than Collected. If not for Gun Runner, this horse would be a nearly-unanimous Horse of the Year selection. He’s won four of five this year, including the Grade 1 Pacific Classic over his stablemate, Arrogate. He was a solid second to Gun Runner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and will get a rematch with him in the Pegasus if everything goes to plan here. As we approach the new year, he’s likely the top candidate for 2018 Horse of the Year (as Gun Runner will retire to stud after the Pegasus), and he’s training very well heading into this race.
Mathis Brothers Mile Showdown
Big Score highlights this field and will look to break a losing streak – it feels like he’s long overdue to win another graded stakes race. He’s hit the board in six of his last seven, all of which were against graded stakes company, but he won just once. Last time out, he was a solid third in the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby in a field that looks to be a lot better than what he will face here.
His main danger could come from the Gulfstream Park shipper Kroy, who’s won three out of his last four races coming into this event, including a $100K stakes at Gulfstream Park two back. He looks to be the only true speed horse in the race, which will be very beneficial over a track that tends to favor speed. Also, jockey Javier Castellano comes in to ride, which is a positive sign.
The action will start at Noon Pacific time for the nine-race card. A revamped wagering menu awaits, including a special $1 million guaranteed Late Pick 4 pool on Tuesday that covers races six through nine. In addition to the $1 million guaranteed Late Pick 4 on opening day, fans will find a betting menu that includes $0.50 trifectas, an additional $0.50 Late Pick 5, and rolling $1 Super High Five wagers on all races. Santa Anita will also continue to offer the nation’s lowest major track takeout (15.43%) on win, place, and show wagers.
GOOD LUCK on opening day!