Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif.
While much of the country is suffering through extreme cold and winter storms, officials at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., are preparing for their traditional day-after-Christmas opening on Monday, Dec. 26. Temperatures are expected in the upper 70s and there is no rain in the forecast for Monday, though a storm is expected to roll into Southern California on Tuesday.
This year’s opening day features six graded stakes (three of them Grade 1) on an 11-race program that gets under way at 11 a.m. PT/2 p.m. ET. Highlight of the day figures to be the seven-furlong G1 Malibu, where a victory by two-time G1 winner Taiba would strengthen his chances for an Eclipse Award in the hotly contested 3-year-old male division. The G1 La Brea Stakes, the 3-year-old filly counterpart to the Malibu, is also on tap, as is the G1 American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies going 1 1/4 miles on turf.
Santa Anita’s lid-lifter begins with the G2 Mathis Mile Stakes for 3-year-olds on turf and also includes the G2 San Gabriel for older turf runners going nine furlongs, as well as the G2 San Antonio on dirt for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles.
Other warm-weather tracks offering Monday stakes include Fair Grounds in New Orleans, which carded nine added-money races, two of which – the Untapable for 2-year-old fillies and Gun Runner for 2-year-olds – offer qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby, respectively.
Gulfstream Park has a pair of stakes on turf for 3-year-olds, the Tropical Park Derby and Tropical Park Oaks.
Only two tracks are open on Christmas Eve Saturday, Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs in Florida. There is no racing on the mainland U.S. on Christmas Day.
Here’s a brief look at some of Monday’s major stakes:
2:00 p.m. ET – Grade 2 Mathis Mile Stakes at Santa Anita
Balnikhov, coming off a stretch-running victory for trainer Phil D’Amato in the G3 Bryan Station going a mile at Keeneland, opted not to go in the G1 Hollywood Derby at Del Mar because the extra furlong may be more than this Irish-bred gelding wants to go. He is 2-for-3 at a mile (the one loss being by a nose) and is 0-for-3 at 1 1/16 and 1 1/8 miles. Another Irish-bred gelding, I’m A Gambler, makes his U.S. debut for Mark Glatt and this 3-year-old already has 24 career starts, including 14 races in 2022.
3:03 p.m. ET – Grade 2 San Gabriel Stakes at Santa Anita
Phil D’Amato’s barn is deep in turf performers and he’s got the two favorites here in Masteroffoxhounds and Prince Abama. The former figures to be forwardly placed under Mike Smith, while Prince Abama and Flavien Prat are likely to be running late. Bob and Jackie won this race in 2021 when it was taken off the turf, but the George Papaprodromou-trained 6-year-old is unraced since March 2022. Leonard Powell has two entries, with Dicey Mo Chara back at his best distance after running a dull race last out going 1 1/2 miles in the G2 Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar.
4:32 p.m. ET – Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita
Bob Baffert-trained Country Grammer is gearing up for another invasion of Saudi Arabia, where he finished second in last year’s $20 million Saudi Cup at 1 1/4 miles, so this race is obviously not his main target. He still towers over a weak six-horse field that includes two other Baffert runners, Hudson Ridge, who’s done his best racing on turf, and lightly raced Hopkins, making his first stakes and two-turn start. The latter is a threat to steal it under Juan Hernandez but he is unproven at a distance.
5:35 p.m. ET – Grade 1 La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita
Hall of Famer Baffert has three runners in the San Antonio and four in the La Brea – half the field in both races (before any scratches). None of the eight starters has yet to win a G1, so this will be a good pedigree page result for someone. Sporting a record of four wins in five starts, Midnight Memories may be the best of the Baffert quartet and comes off a 3 1/4-length win in the G2 Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita in October at 1 1/16 miles. Her first two wins were sprinting at Santa Anita earlier this year, so the cutback in distance to seven furlongs shouldn’t be a problem. If anyone is going to upset the Baffert apple cart, it might be Hot Peppers, sent west from New York by Rudy Rodriguez. Tyler Gaffalione will be riding her for the first time and this filly has speed and likes to win..
6:00 p.m. ET – Gun Runner Stakes at Fair Grounds
There don’t appear to be any Epicenters in this second edition of the Gun Runner, a race that served as a coming out party for the eventual G1 Kentucky Derby and G1 Preakness runner-up and G1 Travers winner. The morning line favorite, Jace’s Road, was beaten 36 1/2 lengths last out in the G3 Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, but the Quality Road colt from the Brad Cox barn may have left his race in the starting gate, acting up before the start as the 2-1 favorite. Jace’s Road could be the lone speed in this lineup, and Florent Geroux certainly knows how to win on the front end.
6:39 p.m. ET – Grade 1 Runhappy Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita
If Eclipse Award voters have held out from voting (which they should until the final Grade 1 races of the year are run), they’ll be paying special attention to this year’s Malibu, since Taiba is in the running for 3-year-old champion despite a poor performance in his only Triple Crown race, the G1 Kentucky Derby in which he finished 12th behind Rich Strike and Epicenter. The Gun Runner colt and Arkansas Derby and Haskell winner Cyberknife are the only leading contenders in the Eclipse Awards race with two G1 wins to their credit (Taiba won the Santa Anita and Pennsylvania Derbies and was beaten a head by Cyberknife in the Haskell). A third contender is Epicenter, now retired, who won the G1 Travers and was second in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. While morning line favorite in the Malibu, Taiba is no cinch. Forbidden Kingdom, with speed from the rail, will have to be reeled in, and Wesley Ward ships Naktomi to Santa Anita from his Keeneland base in Kentucky off a good allowance score Nov. 5.
7:11 p.m. ET – Grade 1 American Oaks at Santa Anita
This may be the best betting race on the Santa Anita opening day card, with 11 fillies looking for Grade 1 black type, including four East Coast invaders. The best of the out of towners might be Chad Brown-trained Salimah, but her last win was on yielding turf. Pizza Bianca has talent but was no match for Regal Glory last out in the G1 Matriarch. Trained by Christophe Clement throughout her career, she is now in Graham Motion’s barn. Skims won the G2 Sands Point for Shug McGaughey last out and has the tactical speed that works so well on this grass course. Sparkle Blue is a second Graham Motion runner who comes off a strong score in Keeneland’s Valley View. Joel Rosario will be back aboard the Hard Spun filly.