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ARCADIA, CA – A short field of five fillies and mares will enter the gate in Sunday’s $200,000 Santa Maria Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita Park, but all eyes will be on the rematch between Ce Ce and Hard Not to Love.
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Ce Ce and Hard Not to Love finished 1-2 in the Beholder Mile (G1) here on March 14 after Hard Not to Love changed tactics and set the early pace as the 3/5 favorite. Ce Ce stalked and pounced near the 1/4 pole, then drew off to win by 3 1/4 lengths at 4/1 odds.
This time around, Ce Ce figures to be the bettors’ choice, due to both having defeated Hard Not to Love and a nailbiting victory in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) at Oaklawn Park a month later. As he has done for each of her six prior starts, Hall of Fame jockey Victor Espinoza has the mount aboard the 3/5 morning line favorite.
Hard Not to Love gained a cult following after her last-to-first rally in the La Brea Stakes (G1) saw her pull off a big score at 11/1. A paddock accident as a baby caused her to lose her left eye, but she has seen the finish line first in five of her seven appearances. This will be her second test going two turns, following the Beholder, and Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith will be aboard for the fifth straight race.
The Santa Maria is the penultimate event on an eight-race Sunday card and has a local post time of 3:42 PM. Here is the full field:
1. Hard Not to Love (9/5) – Perhaps it was having to break from the rail (her first time), going two turns (her first time), or changing tactics and leading early (her 5 wins have come from off the pace) that cost her the W last time. Whatever the cause for her defeat last time, she will have to figure out what needs to change if she wants to turn the tables on Ce Ce. She does have top-notch connections, and she is a half-sister to Wonder Gadot (four-time stakes winner who earned $1.5 million), so she is definitely not without a chance.
2. Ce Ce (3/5) – This highly-touted filly began her career with a win and a neck defeat, then shipped to Belmont Park for the Acorn Stakes (G1), where she missed third by a head. Given time off until this past February, she rolled home to win a 6 1/2-furlong sprint by 4 1/4 lengths before her back-to-back Grade 1 victories. She is squarely the one to beat.
3. Fighting Mad (6/1) – Though mostly known as a sprinter, her lone two-turn start resulted in a sharp 8-length score in the mile-long Torrey Pines Stakes (G3) at Del Mar last August. This will be her second start back after she set the pace and faded in the 6-furlong Desert Stormer Stakes (G3) here on May 17. She is the most likely pacesetter in a field with questionable early speed, and bettors fading Bob Baffert trainees in California graded stakes races do so at their own peril.
4. Horologist (8/1) – A second runner exiting the Apple Blossom, she raced much farther off the pace than usual and struggled to navigate through much of the 14-horse field. Prior to that sixth-place finish, she was just a nose away from winning a mile-long Laurel Park stakes, and she also put together a four-race win streak last summer prior to joining the Richard Baltas barn. A much smaller field should mean no traffic excuses this time.
5. Kaydetre (20/1) – She returned to the winner’s circle for the first time in 10 months just six days ago when she took home a local 1-mile allowance/optional claiming race. She never ran better than last of six in the Beholder Mile one race prior, but perhaps her very recent victory will boost her confidence. After her most recent victory, she finished second in the mile-long Tranquil Lake Stakes.
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