Racing fans find two presents under the tree this weekend -- a break from the rigors of handicapping and the anticipation of Opening Day at Santa Anita.
Other than Saturday's $60,000 Ginger Brew Stakes for 2-year-old fillies on the Gulfstream Park grass, U.S. stakes racing is taking the Christmas weekend off.
In Japan, however, Sunday finds the $5.4 million, Group 1 Arima Kinen-Grand Prix for 3-year-olds and up at the Nakayama Racecourse. The event, run over 2,500 meters on the grass, has attracted many of the top older Japanese horses, including Buena Vista and Triple Crown winner Orfevre.
The race will be the swan song for Buena Vista, a two-time Japanese Horse of the Year and a popular favorite. Her retirement was announced after her upset win in last month's Group 1 Japan Cup.
"She's won a Grade 1 race the last four years and you can only be grateful for what she's achieved," said trainer Hiroyoshi Matsuda. "She's such an amazing horse because she knows how to get herself into shape. Just like always, she'll do what she's got to do here as well."
Victoire Pisa, winner of the Dubai World Cup, is another top runner in Sunday's event. He will be trying to rebound from a 14th-place showing in the Japan Cup, an embarrassment that trainer Katsuhiko Sumii blamed on the long layoff from March to November.
"Without a doubt, he's far more ready to run than last time," Sumii said. "It was disappointing, the race he had and the performance he had."
While the British have Boxing Day on the day after Christmas, Americans have Santa Anita, starting Monday.
"They call it 'The Great Race Place' and that's what it is," veteran trainer Ron McAnally said in anticipation.
Conditioner Bob Baffert added, "It's my Christmas present from racing."
Former jockey Gary Stevens chimed in, "It's like Christmas two days in a row."
In the "good old days," the opening of Santa Anita marked the eagerly awaited end of a long seasonal drought for Southern California racing. Today, with year-round racing, the thrill is not about the return to action but, rather, about the start of a new season leading up to the "Big Cap" and the Santa Anita Derby.
Wasting no time, the Arcadia oval has scheduled the $300,000, Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds going 7 furlongs on the main course on Opening Day, as well as the $150,000, Grade II Sir Beaufort Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 mile on the grass.
Baffert has entered four for the Malibu -- one of the few major Southern California races he hasn't won. The quartet includes Grade I winner The Factor, who comes off a fading, eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Three of the others in the 11-horse field are from the Steve Asmussen barn so it's a good thing trainers don't have to run their horses as entries anymore.
Santa Anita's kickoff also includes a pair of $100,000 stakes for state-bred 2-year-olds.
Turfway Park Monday has the $50,000 Gowell Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at 6 furlongs on the all-weather track.