The day after Christmas was Boxing Day in England, "return that awful gift day" in most of the United States and Opening Day at Santa Anita -- an early start of the new season for racing fans.
While Santa Anita's winter/spring meeting always provides a look at some Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks hopefuls, Saturday's inaugural was as much a look back as a glimpse of the future.
The track provided a farewell appearance by Breeders' Cup Classic winner -- and potential Horse of the Year -- Zenyatta. Trainer Ron McAnally helped unveil a new paddock statue of John Henry, the legendary gelding who won 12 stakes at Santa Anita and whose victory by a whisker over The Bart in the inaugural Arlington Million helped put that race on the map.
The featured race of the day, the $300,000 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds, provided a graceful progression from past to future as a couple 2009 Triple Crown trail vets -- Papa Clem and Square Eddie -- faced off with some late-bloomers from their class.
The newcomers had the better of it as M One Rifle shot right to the lead and wasn't caught, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Misremembered. Papa Clem finished third and Square Eddie settled for sixth.
M One Rifle, a California-bred One Man Army gelding, ran the 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:21.05 under Mike Smith. Bruce Headley trains.
"I'm so proud of the way he's been improving," Smith said. "At the quarter pole, I asked him to run and he just dropped down and gave it to me. When we headed for home, I asked him for a little more, and he was right there for me. He ran super."
M One Rifle had finished second, beaten only by a nose, in the California Cup Sprint, then was third in the Damascus Stakes on the Breeders' Cup undercard.
Evita Argentina took the opposite approach to victory in the companion $300,000 La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, rallying from last of 11 to win by 2 lengths over Starlarks. Amazed by Grace finished third. Evita Argentina, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Candy Ride, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:21.78 with Joel Rosario up for trainer John Sadler.
She now is 4-for-6 lifetime and has made 7 furlongs a specialty. In last month's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, she finished seventh.
"This filly likes to make one run," Rosario said. "So I try to just leave her alone early and keep her comfortable. She relaxed so well today when we came to the five-sixteenths pole, I had a lot of confidence."
The Usual Q.T. made a five-wide run to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds over the turf and got home first, 1 length to the good of Gallant Son. Massone was third.
The Usual Q.T., a California-bred Unusual Heat gelding, ran the 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.58 with Victor Espinoza riding. He ran his winning streak to six, including victories in the Oak Tree Derby and the Hollywood Derby.
Proudinsky stalked the pace set by Lava Man in Sunday's $150,000 San Gabriel Handicap, got the lead on the second turn and held off Loup Breton in the final strides to win by a neck. Acclamation was third and Lava Man faded badly to finish last of seven. Proudinsky, a 6-year-old, German-bred son of Silvano, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:46.91 with Rafael Bejarano up for trainer Humberto Ascanio. Lava Man, a local favorite 8-year-old gelding who had been idle for 17 months, "just got tired," said trainer Doug O'Neill. "I thought I had him more fit than that." He said he will confer with the owners before deciding on how to proceed.
And in the $100,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes for state-bred 2-year-olds, Caracortado stalked the pace, came out in the stretch run to split rivals and won by 1 3/4 lengths. Alphie's Bet was second and the favorite, La Nez, finished third. Caracortado, a Cat Dreams gelding, got the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.61. He now has won four straight but Sunday's effort was his first around two turns.
In Sunday's $100,000 California Breeders' Champion Stakes for California-bred juvenile fillies, Evening Jewel pressed the pace, took the lead turning for home and won by 3/4 length over a late-running Warren's Jitterbug. West Ruler, the lukewarm favorite, finished third. Evening Jewel, a daughter of Northern Afleet out of the Giant's Causeway mare Jewel of the Night, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.97 with Victor Espinoza in the irons. It was her first try around two turns and trainer James Cassidy said he is eyeing turf for Evening Jewel.
Elsewhere on the final weekend of 2009:
Tampa Bay Downs
The Gulf Coast oval was showcasing the future on its opening day program.
Gesu went off at 22-1 on the day after Christmas, then overcame traffic trouble and rolled down the lane to win the $75,000 Inaugural Stakes for 2-year-olds by 1/2 length over Hellen's Choice. The favorite, Mr. Green, finished third, completing a $6,737.80 trifecta. Gesu, a Florida-bred son of Proud Accolade, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:11.58. Paco Lopez had the mount for trainer Joseph Calascibetta. "You know," Lopez said, "sometimes everything just works out for you! I had never ridden this guy before and I didn't want to get too far out of it but there we were near the back. I got a break coming into the stretch and I was able to get between horses and then it opened up again for me getting to the wire. He really put in a big effort and I would love to ride him some more. I think he could go farther."
In Saturday's $75,000 Sandpiper for 2-year-old fillies, the favorite, Criola Bonita rallied from last of seven to win by a neck over Joanie's Catch. Yournothebossofme was third at a big price. Criola Bonita, a Florida-bred Lightnin N Thunder filly, was clocked in 1:12 flat under apprentice Abel Lezcano. "If she comes out very well, we intend to go for the race at Gulfstream (the Grade III Old Hat Stakes)," said winning owner Luis Duco. That race, he said, could be a stepping stone to the Florida Oaks at Tampa on March 13.
He added he was also interested in pointing his filly to the Grade III Florida Oaks, to be run here on March 13, 2010.
Calder Race Course
Across the peninsula, the really old was on display in Saturday's $150,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap as 9-year-old Cloudy's Knight picked up the pieces after a strange early pace duel and won by 1 1/4 lengths. Spice Route, the leader at the top of the stretch, held on for second and Winchester was third. Presious Passion, the odds-on favorite and bidding to win the race for a third straight time, went out to his usual big lead but faced an unusual challenge from Livingston Street the first time down the stretch, eventually sapping his vitality at the end. Cloudy's Knight, a Kentucky-bred Lord Avie gelding, ran the 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:27.63 with Rosemary Homeister Jr. up for trainer Jonathan Sheppard. "He's a wonderful horse and maybe a little lucky today with what the gray horse (Livingston Street) did," Sheppard said. "That will be it for him for a while as we've already decided to skip Gulfstream. You can't dance all the dances, although he wasn't even blowing when he came back today. We hope to bring him back by the spring or summer."
Sweet Repent stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Stage Door Betty Handicap for fillies and mares, stepped up the pressure in deep stretch and was just up in time to win by a nose over Amazing. Aurora Lights finished third. Sweet Repent, a 3-year-old, Florida-bred Repent filly, got the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:46.91 with Manoel Cruz in the irons. Trained by David Braddy, Sweet Repent has won six of 12 lifetime starts, including the Judy's Red Shoes Stakes and Elmer Heubeck Distaff Handicap, both at Calder this year. "This was definitely the best field of horses she's beaten so far," Braddy said. "The plan now is to run her in the Sunshine Millions and then give her a little break."
Motovato was squeezed at the start of Saturday's $100,000 Kenny Noe Jr. Handicap, steadied behind a rival at the top of the stretch, forced outside for running room at mid-stretch and still got up to win by a neck over Dream Maestro. Prince Joshua was third and the favorite, Biker Boy, pedaled home fifth. Motovato, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Proud Citizen colt, ran the 7 furlongs in 1:24.44 with Elvis Trujillo up. "He didn't break good again today," said winning trainer Marty Wolfson, "and with the trip he was getting down the backstretch, I thought he'd be lucky to hit the board. But he was just so much the best."
Huntin the Trash rallied from last to win Saturday's $125,000 Red Hedeman Mile Handicap for New Mexico-bred 2-year-olds by 1 length over the favorite, Rig's Runner. Train Rider Blues finished third. Huntin the Trash, a Halory Hunter colt, finished in 1:41.57 with Mark Villa aboard.
Stealth Cat came from last of six to win Sunday's $50,000 Bold Ego Handicap for fillies and mares, besting early leader Cape of Bradford by 1 length under the wire. Magdalena's Chase finished third. Stealth Cat, a 5-year-old, Texas-bred Magic Cat mare, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:03.78 under Luis Contreras.
Digger led the way in Saturday's $65,000 Gravesend Handicap and held on at the end to win by a nose over Pashito the Che. Starforaday finished third. Digger, a 5-year-old, Maryland-bred Yonaguska gelding, ran the 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:11.66 for jockey Rosie Napravnik.
Wishful Tomcat led all the way to a 2 3/4-lengths win in Sunday's $65,000 Alex M. Robb Handicap for New York-breds. Naughty New Yorker rallied for second, a neck better than Pegasian. Wishful Tomcat, the heavy favorite, turned the 1 1/16 miles on the muddy inner track in 1:47.92 under Ramon Dominguez. He is a 4-year-old Tactical Cat ridgeling.
Harlan Street sat off a hot early pace in Saturday's $75,000 Christmas Stakes, got to the leaders at mid-stretch and won by 2 1/4 lengths over odds-on favorite Ravalo. Nay's Tap finished third. Harlan Street, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Street Cry gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:12.5 with Scott Spleth up.
Princeville Condo got to the outside around the turn in Saturday's $60,000 Diliberto Memorial Handicap, challenged the front-runners at mid-stretch and then survived a late bid by Pick Six to win by a head. Swains News was third. Princeville Condo, a 4-year-old, Illinois-bred Morluc gelding, ran the "about" 1 1/16 miles on "good" turf in 1:47.95. Francisco Torres rode for trainer Greg Geier.
Golden Country won a three-horse blanket finish in Saturday's $50,000 Holiday Cheer Stakes, rallying from well back to get a neck in front at the wire. Agastache contested the pace and held second, a nose in front of Accredit. Golden Country, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Menifee colt, ran the 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:10.44 with Orlando Mojica up.
Napili Point rallied wide into the stretch in Saturday's $50,000 Lost in the Fog Juvenile Stakes and was all-out at the end to win by 3/4 length over R El Jefe. Caspers Legacy finished third. Napili Point, an Arizona-bred Truckee gelding, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.33 under Dennis Collins.
Tornado Betty took charge in the stretch run in Saturday's $50,000 Arizona Juvenile Fillies, drawing off to score by 1 3/4 lengths over Haggai. Izzy Rules got home third. Tornado Betty, a California-bred daughter of Comic Strip, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:10.51 for Jorge Carreno.
Taste's Sis chased the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Kachina Handicap for fillies and mares, then was up at the end to win by 1/2 length over Table Mesa. Flicker of Gold finished third. Taste's Sis, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Marquetry filly, got the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.69 with Adolfo Morales riding.