Opening day at Santa Anita means Christmas is over, the springtime "Road to the Roses" is on the horizon and there's one last chance to evaluate some of the top runners of the waning year before voting for the Eclipse Awards.
The Santa Anita "validation" may not be as important as it was before the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Those races now usually define the year-end awards. Even a stumble at Santa Anita would have meaning only in a close competition. And a horse like Bob Black Jack has little chance of advancing his cause despite his convincing, gate-to-wire win in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds.
Bob Black Jack just missed in the Santa Anita Derby last April, finishing second and only 1/2 length behind Colonel John. But he then faded from contention in the Kentucky Derby after setting the early pace and wasn't seen again until November, when he finished a close fifth in the Vernon O. Underwood at Hollywood Park.
Saturday, the California-bred Stormy Jack colt jumped out of the gate under David Flores and never looked back, winning by 2 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Into Mischief. Georgie Boy was third and Santa Anita Derby hero Colonel John, coming off a sixth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic, could do no better than fourth in the Malibu.
Bob Black Jack, trained by James Kasparoff, ran the 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:20.2 after setting quick fractions.
"He needed his last race, no doubt about it," Flores said. "I knew nobody else had the speed this horse does. I was hoping we could control the race, and we did.
"He cleared right away and threw his ears up. Nobody else seemed like they were in a hurry, and he was doing it so easily. He finished up really strong, and I just hope he stays good and sound and that we have another big year with him."
In Saturday's companion $250,000 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Indian Blessing did make an Eclipse Award statement, stalking the pace set by Indyanne until the turn, then taking command to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Ginger Pop. Bsharpsonata was third while Indyanne appeared to take a bad step, was pulled up and vanned off.
Indian Blessing, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Indian Charlie, finished the 7 furlongs in 1:20.89 with John Velazquez riding for trainer Bob Baffert. It was her sixth victory in nine starts this year. In the other three races, including the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, she finished second.
Voting in the 3-year-old filly Eclipse category may be interesting. Eight Belles is the likely and sentimental choice, having won four straight races before her second-place finish and untimely death in the Kentucky Derby. But Goldikova won the Breeders' Cup Mile in her only U.S. start. Proud Spell won the Kentucky Oaks, the Delaware Oaks and the Alabama. And Indian Blessing was as consistent as they come in top company.
In voting for the filly and mare sprint champion, Ventura, who beat Indian Blessing by 4 lengths in the Breeders' Cup, would seem to have a significant leg up.
Baffert said the La Brea was not an Eclipse audition. "We just ran in this race because the filly enjoys running," he said.
Baffert said he now plans to ship Indian Blessing to Dubai for the $2 million Golden Shaheen March 28. "That was my plan. I was going to run her here and then freshen her up and take her to Dubai, if all goes well," he said. "She's better than she was for the Breeders' Cup. She's stronger now."
In other opening weekend action at the track that hosted this year's – and will host next year's – Breeders' Cup World Championships:
-- Proudinsky had to fight for running room at the top of the stretch in Sunday's $150,000 San Gabriel Handicap. But once the 5-year-old, German-bred son of Silviano got a clear path, he made good use of it, winning by 3/4 length over Ferneley. Medici Code was third and Becrux, unable to find anywhere to run after he turned for home, settled for fourth. Proudinsky, with Rafael Bejarano up for trainer Bobby Frankel, finished the 9 furlongs of firm turf in 1:48.39. The win was Frankel's 900th at Santa Anita, including five runnings of the San Gabriel. He seemed modestly impressed, both with his success and his horse. "He had a really good trip and got through when he needed to," Frankel said of Proudinsky. "He did his job. He's a nice, honest horse. Not a top-class horse but a nice Group II horse. We'll see what's next, play it by ear. It's nice that I've won that many races here but I didn't realize it," he added.
-- The $100,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds came off the grass because of recent rains in northern California and four of the original entrants were scratched. The change in surface didn't seem to bother the favorite, Gio Ponti, who rallied from last to win by 1 1/2 lengths. With Garrett Gomez riding for trainer Christophe Clement, Gio Ponti covered the 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:34.92. Medjool was second, a head in front of El Gato Malo. "He ran a really good race," Gomez said. "The synthetic today was a question and I wanted to give him an opportunity to see how he'd (handle) it. We know he can run over grass."
-- In the third feature on opening day, All Saint rallied three-wide into the stretch in the $125,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes for California-bred juveniles, then lugged in a bit before winning by 1 length over the favorite, Feisty Suances. Atticus Jack finished third. All Saint, a gray son of Skimming out of the Free House mare Santa Patricia, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:22.07 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons.
-- Flashmans Papers got the lead early in the stretch run in Saturday's $70,000 Eddie Logan Stakes for 2-year-olds and held on at the end to win by 1/2 length over the favorite, Kelly Leak. Congor Bay finished third. Flashmans Papers, a British-bred colt by Exceed and Excel, ran the 1 mile on "good" turf in 1:36.61 under Rafeal Bejarano. Garret Gomez was hospitalized after a spill in the race. His mount ducked into the rail early in the stretch run.
-- Saucey Evening came from last of seven to win Saturday's $125,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes for state-bred, 2-year-old fillies by 2 1/2 lengths. Spanish Ice was 1 1/2 lengths to the good of Ten Churros for second place. Saucey Evening, a daughter of More Than Ready, ran the 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:21.84. Gomez rode for trainer H. Graham Motion.
-- Navigator found her way to the front and then to the winner's circle in Sunday's $70,000 Blue Norther Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, holding on at the end to win by 1 length over April Pride. Acting Lady was 1/2 length farther back in third and the favorite, Internallyflawless, got home last of nine. Navigator, a Kentucky-bred Stormy Atlantic filly, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.38 with Victor Espinoza up for trainer Ron Ellis.
In other weekend racing:
Fabulous Strike went to the lead when asked by jockey Ramon Dominguez in Saturday's $100,000 Gravesend Handicap and won by 1 3/4 lengths over early leader True Quality. Good Card and Lucky Island completed the order of finish. Fabulous Strike, a 5-year-old, Pennsylvania-bred gelding by Smart Strike, ran the 6 furlongs on a "good" track in 1:09.74.
In Sunday's $75,000 Alex M. Robb Handicap for New York-breds, R Clear Victory lived up to his name, rallying from a pace-stalking trip to win by 1 1/2 lengths over early leader South Fourth St. Icabad Crane was third. R Clear Victory, a 5-year-old Victory Gallop gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the inner track in 1:44.85 with Stewart Elliott riding.
Golden Gate Fields
Unusual Suspect sat behind the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Silveyville Stakes for California-breds, took charge at the top of the stretch and went on to win by 1 lengths. Cover Magic, who pressed the pace, held second and early leader Bamaha Breeze was third. Swift Demand completed the order of finish after a pair of scratches. Unusual Suspect, a son of Unusual Heat, got the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in a leisurely 1:47.36.
Ravalo stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Christmas Stakes, took the lead at the top of the stretch and drew off easily to win by 6 1/4 lengths over Night Stand. Smoke'n Review finished third. Ravalo, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Mutakddim, ran the 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:10.15 with Dana Whitney riding.
Tampa Bay Downs
Top Seed sat off the early pace in Saturday's $65,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds, collared the leader with a furlong to run and won by 1 length over General Quarters. Miles and Miles was third. Top Seed, a Kentucky-bred colt by Grand Slam, ran the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.91 under Eibar Coa. Michael Trombetta trains the colt.
Dr. Zic set a sharp pace in Saturday's $65,000 Sandpiper Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, held well and won by 1 3/4 lengths over the favorite, Sunday in Malibu. Hooh Why was third. Dr. Zic, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Milwaukee Brew out of the Holy Bull mare Royal Corona, finished 6 furlongs in 1:10.77 with Daniel Centeno in the irons.
Lefty Who came from a pace-stalking position to win Saturday's $125,000 Red Hedeman Mile Handicap for New Mexico-bred 2-year-olds by 1 1/4 lengths over Lesters Secret. Spring to Teras was third. Lefty Who, a Quniton's Gold gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.54 with Carlos Madeira in the irons.
Stormy West rallied five-wide around the turn and into the stretch in Saturday's $60,000 Furl Sail Handicap for fillies and mares, then went on to win by 3/4 length over Shyloe Lafeet. Nans Joy finished third. Stormy West, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Gone West, ran the "about" 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:46.41. Patrick Valenzuela had the mount for trainer Bill Mott.
Officer Rocket got through traffic at the top of the stretch in Saturday's $50,000 Holiday Cheer Stakes and went on to win by 1 length over the favorite, Rouse the Cat. Golden Country ran third. Officer Rocket, a 4-year-old, British-bred Officer colt, got the 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:11.48 under Orlando Mojica.
Czechers was quickly in front in Saturday's $50,000 Kachina Handicap for fillies and mares, turned back a challenge at the top of the lane and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Star of Whitney. She's Sensational finished third. Czechers, a 3-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Indian Charlie, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:37.36 with Stephan Heiler in the irons.
Carlsbad won by a cavernous margin -- 19 lengths -- in Saturday's $50,000 Arizona Juvenile Fillies Stakes. With Daniel Vergara riding for trainer Kevin Lewis, the Arizona-bred Rockey Bar filly did it on her own, finishing 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.2. Shamus On Me was best of the rest and Keyless finished third.
Hidden Bounty stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Lost in the Fog Juvenile, shot to the lead on the turn and drew off easily to win by 7 lengths over Just Jebicah. Spectaculartop was third. Hidden Bounty, an Arizona-bred gelding by Hidden City, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.83 with Wilson Dieguez aboard.
Peace Town stalked the pace in Saturday' $50,000 Maryland Juvenile Championship for state-bred 2-year-olds, then won a stretch duel with In the Juice by 1/2 length. Royal Stare finished third. Peace Town, a chestnut colt by Peace Rules, ran the "about" 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.83. Julian Pimentel had the mount.
Not Grounded led throughout in winning Saturday night's $60,000 Calcasieu Stakes for Louisiana-bred 2-year-olds by 3/4 length over the odds-on favorite, Foreign Production. Sweet Dixieland ran well late to finish third. Not Grounded, a Stormy Atlantic gelding, got the 5 furlongs on a muddy, sealed track in 59.4 seconds with Curt Bourque in the irons.
Louisiana Lace stalked the pace, then went to the front in the stretch run of Saturday night's $60,000 Creme de la Creme Stakes for state-bred 2-year-old fillies and held on to win by 1/2 length at odds of nearly 25-1. Scarlet Rain, at 67-1, completed the $1,667.20 exacta and Reckon finished third. The even-money favorite, Steam That Kettle, led early but faded to finish sixth. Louisiana Lace, a daughter of Cuvee, ran 5 furlongs in 1:01.19 under Iram Diego.