UPI Horse Racing Weekend Preview
The U.S. racing schedule is light for the Christmas weekend -- light but choice as Santa Anita marks its traditional Boxing Day kickoff.
Collected, Hoppertunity, Accelerate, Unique Bella and a bunch more Breeders' Cup contenders are on the Santa Anita opening day card. X Y Jet makes a long-awaited return in Florida.
On the international front, Japan rings out the year's Group 1 racing, and Kitasan Black winds up his racing career, in Sunday's Arima Kinen at Tokyo Racecourse. The all-weather battles continue in England. And Thursday's card at Meydan produced a couple contenders for spots on the Dubai World Cup card in March.
Let's march right into it:
If it's the day after Christmas, Southern California racing fans aren't exchanging gifts Santa Claus brought them. They're at Santa Anita on what the British call Boxing Day. In Arcadia, California, it's Opening Day. And the gifts are graded stakes with top-shelf horses. The only returns necessary are to the windows with winning tickets.
Start with the $300,000 Grade II San Antonio, which this is a Grade I event by any standards other than the official ones. Trainer Bob Baffert has both Collected and Hoppertunity in this 1 1/8-mile event. Collected, winner of the Grade I Pacific Classic over Arrogate and second only to Gun Runner in the Breeders' Cup Classic, drew the outside gate in a field of six. Hoppertunity won the last two runnings of this race, which previously was run in early February, and each time went on to contest the Dubai World Cup. Prime Attraction and Accelerate will be waiting for either of Baffert's charges to come up short. This might be asking too much of Giant Expectations and Top of the Game.
The $200,000 Grade II Mathis Brother Mile, run on the grass, attracted players from the Del Mar Derby, the Hollywood Derby, also run at Del Mar, and the Twilight Derby at Santa Anita -- all 9-furlongs races. Also here is B Squared, who finished up the track in the Breeders' Cup Sprint on the dirt but has done much better on the green course. Trainer Armando de la Cereda brings Kroy from Florida to face a tough jump in class.
Unique Bella, who faded badly as the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, is back to contest Saturday's $300,000 Grade I La Brea for 3-year-old fillies at 7 furlongs. The Tapit filly had won five straight races, four of them graded stakes, before finishing seventh in the Del Mar showdown. She has been working brilliantly for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer ever since but the competition won't be much softer in this heat than it was in the Breeders' Cup. Among the rivals: Santa Anita Oaks winner Paradise Woods, who was third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff in her last start; Princess Karen, a speedster who finished fifth after chasing the pace in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint; and Faypien, winner of the Grade II Summertime Oaks over the course back in June.
And then there's the Grade I Malibu for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs, featuring some lightly raced potential stars. Pavel, a Creative Cause colt, finished a close third in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park before wilting in the late going in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finishing 10th. Dabster, a Curlin colt from the Baffert barn, has won all three of his previous starts and jumps into graded stakes company. C Z Rocket, by City Zip, also has won all three of his races, most recently a one-turn mile at Churchill Downs for trainer Al Stall Jr. Favorable Outcome, a Flatter colt trained by Chad Brown, won the Grade II Swale at Gulfstream Park in February, then disappeared until September. He won his last start most impressively at Aqueduct, earning a 104 Beyer Speed Figure, equal to the number Pavel earned in the Gold Cup. Irish Freedom and Edwards Going Left could benefit from a surfeit of early speed.
X Y Jet, despite making his first start in more than 13 months, is the 7-5 morning-line favorite among 10 in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes at 7 furlongs. The 5-year-old Kantharos gelding won this race as a 3-year-old and went on to win the Sunshine Millions Sprint and the Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint in early 2016 en route to a runner-up finish in that year's Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan. He was off for months after that, then only ran twice in the fall of 2016 and disappeared again after having knee surgery. Trainer Jorge Navarro says he's been training lights-up and, if he's back to his best, the other nine will be disadvantaged. If not, the race is pretty wide open.
Six-time Group 1 winner Kitasan Black, making his final start before retirement, will try for the third time to land one of Japan's top prizes, the Group 1 Arima Kinen, or Grand Prix, Sunday at Nakayama. The race is one of two held each year in Japan in which fans vote for the horses they would like to see start. Kitasan Black was the overwhelming choice for this year's field. He could be due, after finishing third in the 2,500-meters marathon in 2015 and second last year. He disappointed in his last start, finishing third in the Group 1 Japan Cup at Tokyo Racecourse, fading last.
Also set in the field of 16 for the Arima Kinen are the fans' No. 3 pick, Satono Crown, and the winner of this year's Japan Cup, Cheval Grand. Satono Crown, a 5-year-old by Marju, is a Group 1 winner both in Japan and Hong Kong but had a bad day in the Japan Cup, finishing 10th. Cheval Grand, a 6-year-old son of Heart's Cry, earned his first Group 1 score in the Japan Cup. Prior to that, he was second to Kitasan Black in the Tenno Sho (Spring) (G1) at Kyoto. Cheval Grand is owned by Kazuhiro Sasaki, former Seattle Mariners pitcher and 2000 American League Rookie of the Year.
Kitasan Black winning the 2016 Group 1 Japan Cup (2400m) at Tokyo, picture Japan Racing Association
Master the World, fresh from victory Nov. 18 in the Betway Churchill Stakes, will try to double up in Saturday's Betway Quebec Stakes over the same 1 1/4-miles distance and Lingfield Park course. Josephine Gordon, riding on top at the moment, takes the mount for trainer David Elsworth. The oppo includes the 4-year-old filly Mia Tesoro, who finished third behind Master the World in the Churchill, and last year's Quebec winner, Battalion. Mia Tesoro's trainer, Charlie Fellowes, said, "She has a lovely way of going and we will probably keep her ticking over. We will have a look at the Winter Derby Trial. We would love to win a Stakes race and possibly get her placed at Group 3 level in the Winter Derby itself."
United Arab Emirates
It's only a bit more than three months to the Dubai World Cup program at Meydan so it's time to start paying attention to the action there. Thursday's card, run entirely on the dirt course, is a good place to start.
Heavy Metal led throughout in the Dubai Creek Mile. With Royston Ffrench up for trainer Salem bin Ghadayer, the 7-year-old Exceed and Excel gelding defeated Wild Dude by 4 1/2 lengths. A pair of Doug Watson trainees, Stunned and Cosmo Charlie, were third and fourth in a strung-out field. Ffrench commented: "Normally he needs a couple of runs to get going, so for him to win first time out this season has to be a positive."
Etijaah came from behind the leaders to win the Entisar at 2,000 meters, drawing off to win by 6 lengths from Barreesh. Watson trains the winner but was more focused on Second Summer, a previous winner of the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on the World Cup card, who missed the break badly and finished fifth. "He's been off since March and probably needed the run, anyway," Watson said of Second Summer. "But he didn't need a start like that. It's hard when you have three or four horses and one real fancy horse you're expecting a lot out of for the season." Despite the disappointment, Watson said both Eltijaah and Second Summer will move along to the Maktoum Challenge during the Carnival weeks. Watson also saddled Faulkner, who finished third.
The Garhoud Sprint went to Muarrab, the winner of the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2016. The Ali Rashid Al Rayhi trainee, an 8-year-old Oasis Dream gelding, was making his first start since the 2017 Golden Shaheen, in which he struggled home last.
News and Notes:
Louis A. Cella, whose family founded the Oaklawn Jockey Club in 1904, has been named President of the Hot Springs, AR racetrack and gaming facility as well as Southwestern Enterprises, Inc., the parent company of Oaklawn. He succeeds his father, Charles J. Cella, who recently passed away. "It is truly an honor to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather," Louis Cella said. "Racing has been part of the Cella family DNA for generations and we are committed to keeping Oaklawn one of the premiere racetracks in the country for generations to come."
Speaking of keeping racetracks tip-top, Belmont Park is getting a new neighbor as the New York Islanders won the right to develop underused land on the Long Island site for a new arena. The development is expected to include many other improvements designed to draw traffic to the site, including a revamped train station at Belmont. Unclear is the long-term impact on overall New York racing, with some questions about the future of Aqueduct.