Dec. 30 (UPI) -- The final weekend of the horse racing year saw jockey Mike Smith dominate a stellar card in the Santa Anita opener, setting a big-deal record in the process, and Contrail emerge as the star 2-year-old of the Japanese season and a bright prospect for the 2020 Classics.
Also on the Santa Anita card, Omaha Beach won again but Bellafina fell to a Smith-ridden long shot.
A smattering of 2-year-old races from coast to coast also brightened the picture as we prepare to turn the final page of the 2019 calendar.
In "News and Notes," we congratulate the winners of the media Eclipse Awards.
Here's how it unfolded:
Omaha Beach dominated four rivals in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds, rallying by the early speed to win by an easy 2 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Roadster and Manny Wah filled the trifecta slots with Complexity and Much Better completing the order of finish. Omaha Beach, a War Front colt, improved his record to 5-4-1 from 10 starts with the wins including the Grade 2 Rebel, Grade I Arkansas Derby and Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship. He's set to retire after the Grade I Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25.
Mike Smith's excellent day was completed by winning his 217th Grade I race in the Malibu, moving him past Jerry Bailey into the No. 1 spot on that list. Smith said he was shocked to learn the win was his 217th at the top level and honored to have surpassed Bailey.
"Jerry is someone that comes from my hometown," Smith said. "I was born in New Mexico but raised in Texas in El Paso where he's from. His father was my dentist. I went to the same high school that he did. When his high school gave him an honor, I was in the grandstand watching him. I wasn't even riding yet. I was just a kid. He's always meant a lot to me, so to surpass him means a whole lot.
"It's been an amazing career, looking back on it," added Smith, who two weeks earlier was on hand to celebrate the first-ever races at the Royal Saint Lucia Turf Club's new track in the Caribbean. "It's too bad we don't look back on things every day in situations like this to appreciate what you've been able to accomplish. Passing Jerry Bailey at anything is pretty amazing."
Lady Prancealot, with Joe Bravo aboard, threaded through rivals in the stretch run and was along in time to win Saturday's $300,000 Grade I American Oaks by 1/2 length over Mucho Unusual. Pretty Point was third with Giza Goddess fourth. Lady Prancealot, an Irish-bred daughter of Sir Prancealot, ran 1 1/4 miles over good turf, starting on the downhill course, in 2:01.70. She scored her first top-level win in her first start since a late-running victory in the Grade III Valley View at Keeneland on Oct. 18.
"This filly came over here from Europe and the first time she worked she had an issue and we gave her a bunch of time," trainer Richard Baltas said of Lady Prancealot. "We thought we bought a bad horse but we didn't. She has been ultra-consistent."
Amongst the 3-year-old fillies, Hard Not to Love was off a step slow in the $300,000 Grade I La Brea but still had time in the stretch to run by the odds-on, pacesetting favorite, Bellafina, winning by 2 1/4 lengths over that one. Mother Mother chased the early pace and held on for third in her first start since May. Hard Not to Love, a Hard Spun filly dispatched at odds of 11-1, finished the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.17 with Smith in the irons.
Winning trainer John Shirreffs said Smith, who can and does pick and choose his rides at this stage of his career, made the difference when he agreed to ride Hard Not to Love in her previous race. "When he made the decision to ride her, he put his reputation as a horseman on the line," Shirreffs said. "I think that made this even more special."
Gift Box led the way in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Antonio and eased away late to win by 3 3/4 lengths. King Abner was second at a big price with Midcourt third. Gift Box, a 6-year-old son of Twirling Candy, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.73 with Joel Rosario in the irons.
Gift Box also won this event last year and, in the interim, accounted for the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap. He was coming off a six-months layoff since finishing fourth in the Grade II Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. Before that, he was second, 3/4 length behind eventual Breeders' Cup Classic winner Vino Rosso, in the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Ania.
"I hope we can go for a Santa Anita Handicap double," said Gift Box's trainer, John Sadler. "We have a lot of choices with these handicap horses. We'll see how he comes out of the race and maybe run him back east or maybe take Higher Power back there. We're blessed to have two or three horses in this division, so we're going to kind of mix and match. ... We're going to be judicious."
Mirth, well back early, worked her way to the lead in the stretch run in the $100,000 Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes for fillies and mares, was briefly headed by Tiny Tina but fought back to win by a nose. Excellent Sunset was 3/4 length farther back in third.
Mirth, a 4-year-old Colonel John filly from the French Deputy mare Di's Delight, ran 1 1/4 miles on good turf in 1:48.32 with Smith up. She became a Grade I winner for the first time when Smith took over riding duties in the Rodeo Drive in September over the same course, then faded to finish sixth after leading through much of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.
Mirth's trainer, Phil D'Amato, said the slow start "may have been Mike Smith's plan but I thought we would be sitting second maybe, not that far back. But Mike is a Hall of Famer so he figured it out. Today she showed a good dimension against good horses so I think at the end of the day she wants to go further than a mile and eighth. This was a good stepping stone today."
Mo Forza was away last of 10 in the $200,000 Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile for 3-year-olds on the turf, came four-wide to challenge entering the stretch and kicked away to a 1 1/4-lengths victory -- his third straight graded stakes win.
Originaire, with Hong Kong transplant Umberto Rispoli in the irons, made a late run to get second, 1 1/2 lengths in front of Neptune's Storm. Mo Forza, an Uncle Mo colt, finished in 1:34.26 under Rosario while cutting back to the mile for the first time since his maiden win in September.
Trainer Peter Miller said he expected to find Mo Forza "sitting a couple lengths off the pace in third or fourth, and there we were in the back of the pack and five wide, and I'm going, 'Oh Geez, I don't know about this.' But the pace was hot, and Joel knows what he's doing, so everything worked out." Miller said he now is eyeing the $3 million Grade I Pegasus at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 25.
Smith also won the day's first stakes race, the $75,000 Lady of Shamrock Stakes (the shamrock obviously was a good-luck omen) aboard Brill. The Medaglia d'Oro filly led all the way and held safe the late-running favorite, Keeper Ofthe Stars, by 1 3/4 lengths. Lucky Peridot was third. Brill ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:35.75.
Saturday's six-stakes program was carded as all-turf but a couple of them fell victim to the rainy weather that has plagued the Sunshine State. The rest were run on the "good" turf course.
Halladay quickly worked to the front in the $75,000 Tropical Park Derby, showed the way and looked sharp at the end, winning by 1 3/4 lengths from Faraway Kitten. Temple was 1 length farther back in third. Halladay, a War Front colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:43.00 with John Velazquez up for trainer Todd Pletcher. It was his first stakes win and third overall.
Our Bay B Ruth and Isla Road fought it out down the stretch in the $75,000 Tropical Park Oaks with the former finding more to win by a neck. Frond was 3/4 length farther back in third. Our Bay B Ruth, a Candy Ride filly, covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.34 on he "good" turf with Tyler Gaffalione riding. It was her fourth win from her last five starts and first-ever stakes try.
Jean Elizabeth stalked the pace made by the favorite, Girls Know Best, in the off-the-turf $100,000 Abundantia Stakes for fillies and mares, then passed that tiring rival and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Escapade also got by Girls Know Best to finish second. Jean Elizabeth, a 4-year-old, Illinois-bred daughter of Adios Charlie, got 5 furlongs in 57.43 seconds with Irad Ortiz Jr. riding for trainer Larry Rivelli.
Extravagant Kid got by pacesetting Faction Cat in the final sixteenth to take the $100,000 Janus Stakes by 1 length. Faction Cat held second by 3 1/2 lengths with Archidust third. Extravagant Kid, a 6-year-old Kiss the Kid gelding, finished the 5 furlongs in 57.52 under Tyler Gaffalione.
Touriga was up in the final strides to win the $75,000 Via Borghese Stakes for fillies and mares by a neck over Pivotal Connection. Chipolata was third, another 1 length back. Touriga, a 4-year-old, Brazilian-bred filly, finished 1 3/16 miles on the green course in 1:54.92 with John Velazquez riding.
The H. Allen Jerkens Stakes originally was carded for 2 miles on the turf but, instead, was run at 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track -- a rather drastic switch that resulted in four scratches.
All said and done, American Tattoo was sent to the post as an odds-on favorite and led all he way to a 1-length score. Shazier was second, 2 3/4 lengths in front of Carom. The next-best was 20 3/4 lengths farther in arrears. American Tattoo, an Argentine-bred colt by Not For Sale, reported in 2:04.26 with Jose Ortiz aboard.
Threefiveindia quickly shook off an early challenge in Saturday's $100,000 Dave's Friend Stakes, then rolled on largely unmolested and coasted home first by 3/4 length. Arch Cat's rally fell short but earned second, 3 1/4 lengths to the good of Smooth B. Threefiveindia, a 6-year-old gelding by Street Hero, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.60 for jockey Trevor McCarthy.
Someday Jones found good late speed in Saturday's $100,000 Native Dancer Stakes, kicking loose in deep stretch to win by 2 lengths. Alwaysmining was second, 2 3/4 lengths better than Monongahela. Someday Jones, a 6-year-old son of Smarty Jones, ran 9 furlongs in 1:49.23 with McCarthy riding.
Majestic Reason outfinished Wildcat Combat for victory in Saturday's $100,000 Willa On the Move Stakes for fillies and mares, winning by 3/4 length. The favorite, Baby Boss, led early but faded to get home third, another 3 lengths in arrears. Majestic Reason, a 4-year-old Majestic Warrior filly, reported in 1:10.68 with McCarthy having a good day, indeed, albeit not quite as good as Smith's on the other coast.
Mrs. Orb came from off the pace to take the lead in the stretch run of Sunday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares, then just did hold off Lucky Move in the final strides, winning by a nose. Out of Orbit was third and the odds-on favorite, Our Super Nova, was never in the mix and finished fourth. Mrs. Orb, a 4-year-old Orb filly, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:56.14 with Dylan Davis in the irons.
Mr. Buff, the odds-on favorite, ran to his notices in Saturday's $100,000 Alex M. Robb Stakes for New York-breds, taking the lead heading for home and winning off by 7 1/2 lengths. Dynamax Prime overcame a stumbling start to finish second, 2 lengths ahead of Fleet Irish. Mr. Buff, a 5-year-old Friend or Foe gelding, toured 1 1/8 miles of fast track in 1:52.84 with Junior Alvarado riding.
Play On took charge in the stretch run of Saturday's $75,000 Pan Zaretta Stakes for fillies and mares at 5 1/2 furlongs on the turf, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over Change of Control. Ruby Trust was another 1/2 length back in third. Play On, a 3-year-old filly by Country Day, reported in 1:04.31 with Shaun Bridgmohan riding.
Zofelle, with Florent Geroux at the controls, had to swing seven-wide in the stretch run of Saturday's $75,000 Pago Hop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, but managed to rally past most of the field to win by 1 length.
Pacesetter Elle's Town coughed up a big lead in the final sixteenth but saved second by 3 1/2 lengths over She'sonthewarpath. Zofelle, an Irish-bred filly by Zoffany, completed 1 mile on yielding going in 1:37.16.
Tracksmith raced in mid-pack in Saturday's $75,000 Woodchopper Stakes for 3-year-olds, came around rivals down the stretch and outfinished Flying Scotsman, winning by 1/2 length. Spectacular Gem was a similar margin farther back in third. Tracksmith, a Street Sense colt ran the 1 mile on yielding turf in 1:39.07 with Adam Beschizza in the irons.
Susan's Violette crossed over from the No. 10 gate to take the lead in Saturday's $100,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, then had things her own way, winning by 4 1/4 lengths. Sidewinder Sally was second, a head better than Ballinouttacontrol. Susan's Violette, a 4-year-old daughter of Stellar Rain, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:04.04 with Enrique Gomez up.
Chief Cicatriz, the heaviest of favorites, didn't disappoint his many fans in Saturday's $75,000 KLAQ Handicap. After setting a pressured pace, the 6-year-old Munnings gelding edged away from five rivals to win by 3/4 length, finishing 5 furlongs in 56.51 seconds for jockey Elvin Gonzalez. Raagheb and Conquest Smartee picked up the minor checks. Chief Cicatriz, a graded stakes winner at Churchill Downs last year, scored his third straight win.
Dale's Lil Sis surged quickly to the fore in Friday's $70,000 Lookout Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares and kept running until she crossed the finish line 4 3/4 lengths in front of runner-up Blue Suade Guitar. Thegrayspider was another 3 1/4 lengths back in third. Dale's Lil Sis, a 5-year-old mare by Zong, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.12 with C.J. McMahon in the irons. Blue Suade Guitar, misspelling and all, is a 4-year-old Star Guitar filly.
On Saturday, Bending Saint chased the early leader in the $70,000 B-Connected Stakes for state-breds, got by and went on to win by 4 lengths. Double Barrel Man was second, 3 lengths better than Star Fitzstall. Bending Saint, a 5-year-old Saint Afleet gelding, got home in 1:26.45 with Timothy Thornton up.
Monday Morning Qb took time off from watching the NCAA football playoffs to win Saturday's $100,000 Heft Stakes at Laurel Park by 3/4 length over New Commission. The favorite, Lebda, was in the mix but tired in the final sixteenth to finish third. Monday Morning Qb, a Maryland-bred colt by Imagining, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.46 with Jorge Vargas Jr. up.
X Clown outfinished long shots Reach the Circle and Fast Verdict in Sunday's $100,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-breds at Fair Grounds, winning by a neck with the other two separated by 1/2 length. The favorite, Richard Ronald, faded late to get home fifth. X Clown, a Jimmy Creed gelding, reported in 1:13.88 over a good track with Tyler Woodley up.
On the turf, Encoder stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita, got to the front at mid-stretch and survived a late bid by Hariboux to win by 1/2 length. Liar Liar was third and the favorite, Smooth Like Strait, was fourth. Encoder, an English Channel colt, finished 1 mile on good turf in 1:34.14 with Joel Rosario riding for trainer John Sadler.
On the grass, Laura's Light made all the going in Sunday's $100,000 Blue Norther Stakes and kicked clear at the end to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Croughavouke ran well late to finish second with Blue Sky Baby just 1/2 length farther back in third. Laura's Light, a daughter of Constitution, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:35.18. Abel Cedillo rode for trainer Peter Miller.
The 2-year-old fillies
Bella Aurora came from last of eight to win Saturday's $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park by 1 1/2 lengths. The favorite, Ankle Monitor, was squeezed back at the start and also ran well late to finish second, just a nose in front of Naughty Thoughts. Bella Aurora, a Virginia-bred filly by Carpe Diem, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.24 with Julien Pimentel in the irons.
Our Lost Love showed the way in Sunday's $100,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred misses at Fair Grounds, fended off a late attack by Lizzy's Star and went on to win by 1 length over that foe. The odds-on favorite, Vacherie Girl, settled for third, another 3 1/2 lengths up the track. Our Lost Love, a daughter of Half Ours, ran 6 furlongs on the good main track in 1:13.25 with Mitchell Murrill up.
Around the world, around the clock:
The hits just kept on coming in Japan this year and the final Grade 1 race of 2019 was no exception as Contrail posted a dominating win in the Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds at Nakayama Racecourse and looks like a good thing for the 2020 Classics.
The Deep Impact colt, under Yuichi Fukunaga, ran just behind the leaders the first time around the course, sprinted to the lead turning for home and ran on boldly to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Weltreisende. Wakea, Rhinebeck and Authority followed in that order. All of the first three finishers and four of the first five entered the race undefeated.
Contrail, bred by North Hill Farm and owned by Shinji Maeda, finished in 2:01.4 over firm going.
"He was really strong," Fukunaga said. "I didn't have to do anything but just sit on him. He's always been a good starter and I didn't want to pull him back too much but was able to settle him behind another runner. Although he was racing well up front I was confident that we could make it through to the end."
The win followed a course record-breaking victory in the Grade 3 Tokyo Sports Hai Hisai Stakes Nov. 16. Now 3-for-3, Contrail is firmly at the top of the charts for the 2020 Classics and that's where trainer Yoshito Yohagi is focused.
"I'm hoping for a good showing," Yohagi said before the Hopeful. "And if he runs well here, he might go directly to the Satsuki Sho next year." The Grade 1 Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2000 Guineas is set for April 14 over the same course and distance as the Hopeful.
Big Party may have earned a ticket to a big dance with a nice win Sunday at Sha Tin Racecourse in the Group 3 Bauhinia Sprint Trophy. With Grant van Niekerk subbing for a flu-ridden Joao Moreira, the gray 4-year-old Exceed and Excel gelding found a seam between rivals inside the 200 meters and went through for a smooth, 1 3/4-lengths win -- his second straight. The win suggested the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup three weeks down the road might be a likely step forward but trainer Frankie Lor sounded a note of caution.
"He has had issues with his back and knee but at the moment everything is okay," Lor said of Big Party. "I need to look after him very carefully. He's a little bit tricky because he wins and then nothing."
But, the trainer added, "If you see this race, I think you will say he could be one of Hong Kong's best sprinters. He's still young and I hope he can improve further."
News and notes
Congratulations to the 2019 media Eclipse Award winners:
Television, Live Racing Programming: TVG, "TVG Pacific Classic," Aug. 17, 2019
Television, Features: FOX Sports 2, "When Rachel Raised the Rafters," Aug. 30, 2019
Feature/Commentary Writing: Joe Nevills, Paulick Report, "Biting The Dust: A Long Goodbye to Mount Pleasant Meadows," July 22, 2019
News/Enterprise Writing: Bryce Miller, San Diego Union-Tribune, "Anniversary of Deadly San Luis Rey Fire Strains Still," Dec. 8, 2018
Audio/Multi-Media Internet: Horse Racing Radio Network (HRRN), "2019 Breeders' Cup World Championships," Nov. 2, 2019
Photography: Jim Leuenberger, DRF.com, "2019 Kentucky Derby," May 4, 2019