Taiba, Country Grammer headline Santa Anita's Opening Day

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Country Grammer, shown winning the 2022 Dubai World Cup, is back in action in Monday's San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita. Photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club
1 of 2 | Country Grammer, shown winning the 2022 Dubai World Cup, is back in action in Monday's San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita. Photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club

Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Sunday is Christmas Day, but Monday brings another gift for racing fans as Santa Anita opens its season with a program packed with six graded stakes, three of them Grade I affairs and at least one with a potential bearing on year-end honors.

Among that embarrassment of riches are the Malibu Stakes, with Taiba looking for votes for the 3-year-old championship, and the San Antonio Stakes, with Dubai World Cup winner Country Grammer probably warming up for another trip to the desert.


Fair Grounds in New Orleans has nine stakes on its Monday program, each worth $100,000. There could be some hints in the Gun Runner Stakes about the Big Easy's potential Kentucky Derby candidates as that race is included in Churchill Downs' "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series.

Christmas Day itself is not devoid of racing interest, although American fans will have to get up early to see the big race -- the Grade 1 Arima Kinen in Japan.


It's a good one, so if Santa's working until the early morning hours, anyway, check it out. Also, anticipation is building in Hong Kong and Dubai for big races early next year. See the "Around the world ..." section.

Meantime, there's this:


If the 3-year-old championship is still up for grabs (is it?), trainer Bob Baffert's decision to enter Taiba in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita is an obvious ploy to boost Gun Runner colt's chances.

A 5-furlong work in 59 3/5 seconds Dec. 19, best of 44 on the tab, says Baffert has Taiba sharp enough for the cutback to 7 furlongs. Scariest of eight rivals is scary-fast Forbidden Kingdom, who drew the rail and will have to be caught.

The 3-year-old Eclipse Award picture is scrambled with three different winners in the Triple Crown races.

Epicenter was narrowly defeated in the final strides in the Kentucky Derby, won the Grade I Travers and took three Grade 2 events during 2022 before his career-ending injury in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Cyberknife won the Arkansas Derby and Haskell, both Grade I races, and just missed by a head in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.


Jack Christopher had two Grade I wins but both came at 7 furlongs.

Taiba already has Grade I wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Santa Anita Derby to go with a second-place finish in the Grade I Haskell and third in the Breeders' Cup Classic. A third Grade I win would command attention among the voters, as no other likely candidate has more than two.

Actually, there is a 3-year-old with three top-level wins already in the book. Modern Games, trained in England by Charlie Appleby for Godolphin, won the French 2000 Guineas at Longchamp, the Woodbine Mile and the Breeders' Cup Mile. Those were all on the turf and he won't get many votes.

And then there are the older horses, where there's no question that Flightline will win not only the division, but also Horse of the Year honors. But he's not the only one around.

Country Grammer seems to have found a cushy spot in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita.

The Tonalist 5-year-old, winner of the Group 1 Dubai World Cup and second in the Group 1 Saudi Cup, already has banked more than $11 million. He also counts the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita among his four wins.


His last two starts resulted in seconds, behind Flightline and Defunded and he faces nothing like those in this race.

Bonus: Frankie Dettori, who rode in the World Cup, visits California to get a leg up from trainer Baffert. Those who must bet against Baffert might look at Stilleto Boy or Heywoods Beach.

Monday's $100,000 Tenacious at Fair Grounds has a full field to go 1 1/16 miles, with Forza Di Oro the lukewarm favorite despite not having run since the Grade III Iselin at Monmouth Park in August, where he finished last of six.

The Road to the Roses

The Dec. 26 Fair Grounds program has 2-year-olds going long and going short. The $100,000 Gun Runner at 1 1/16 miles has a field of seven, all with something to prove.

Determinedly, a Cairo Prince colt, has run well since Mark Casse moved him from grass to dirt. Hayes Strike was third in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club. Andthewinneris switches to dirt after finishing seventh, beaten less than 4 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Watch and learn.

The $100,000 Sugar Bowl, at 6 furlongs, attracted six with Corona Bolt, a Bolt d'Oro colt from Brad Cox's barn, the early pick off a nice maiden win at Churchill Downs.


Other holiday-week races in the juvenile division: Monday's $100,000 Heft Stakes at Laurel Park, Tuesday's $100,000 Parx Juvenile and Tuesday's $100,000 Eddie Logan at Santa Anita, which is contested on the turf.

Already in the books: One in Vermillion set the early pace in Wednesday's $60,000 Lost in the Fog Juvenile Stakes at Turf Paradise, and then held off a stiff stretch bid by the favorite, Man Child, to win by a head.

One in Vermillion, a California-bred colt by Army Mule, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.25 with Harry Hernandez up. He was coming off a seven-months break after winning the Turf Paradise Open Spring Futurity.

The Road to the Oaks

As with the males, Monday's Fair Grounds card provides the young ladies with the option of long or short.

The $100,000 Untapable at 1 1/16 miles has a well-matched field with Pretty Mischief, The Alys Look and Vahva the early favorites after recent wins.

The $100,000 Letellier Memorial at 6 furlongs has eight with Promise of Hope, Dazzling Blue and Twice as Sweet all well-fancied off wins.

Also to watch in this division: Monday's $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park and Tuesday's $100,000 Parx Futurity. Tuesday's $100,000 Blue Norther goes on the Santa Anita turf.


Already in the books: Wednesday at Turf Paradise, Beyond Awesome took back to a pace-stalking position in the $60,000 Arizona Juvenile Fillies, rallied to regain the lead a furlong out and kicked away to a 4 1/4-length victory. Aloha Breeze and Unrivaled Queen filled the trifecta.

Beyond Awesome, an Arizona-bred daughter of Boos, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.04.


Only five turned out for Monday's $100,000 Joseph E. "Spanky" Broussard Stakes at 1 mile, 70 yards at Fair Grounds. Charlie's Penny, a Race Day filly trained by Chris Block, is the morning-line pick.


Manny Wah, last seen finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint, is the marquee name -- but not the morning-line favorite -- among seven set to go 6 furlongs in Monday's $100,000 Richard R. Scherer Memorial at Fair Grounds.

The favorite role goes to Miles Ahead, a Competitive Edge gelding trained by Paul McGee who has improved steadily through the second half of the year at Churchill Downs.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Saturday's $300,000 Grade I La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies has an interesting field of eight. Midnight Memories and Awake at Midnyte were 1-2 at the finish of the Grade II Zenyatta in October. Awake at Midnyte then finished last with a nightmare trip in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.


Baffert saddles half the field -- Midnight Memories, Ganadora, Fun to Dream and Under the Stars -- all well-qualified for this 7-furlong sprint. Hot Peppers ships in from the East Coast with an impressive resume.

Turf / Turf Mile

The seven entries for Monday's $200,000 Grade II Mathis Mile for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita sure make up a weird field.

Balnikhov, the 2-1 morning-line favorite, looks tough off a win in the Grade III Bryan Station at Keeneland.

One More Bid finally broke his maiden in his eighth start in his last race.

I'm a Gambler already has 24 starts, all in England and Ireland. Sumter comes out of a 5-furlong turf dash and looks like the main speed and since the others are late-running types, that could be a big advantage.

The $200,000 Grade II San Gabriel on Santa Anita's opening day finds seven older horses tackling 1 1/8 miles on the lawn.

Prince Abama is the only one of the seven coming off a win and, while several are useful horses at this level, none has done much winning recently. Consider Masteroffoxhounds and Dicey Mo Chara. Another odd one.

With only part of the Fair Grounds turf course suitable for racing and the rail moved way out, Monday's $100,000 Buddy Diliberto was limited to eight horses and three others landing on the "also eligible" list.


Among the confirmed starters, Captivating Moon is a lukewarm favorite on the morning line for trainer Chris Block. If Spooky Channel returns as good as he was before a 14-months layoff, he should be in the competitive mix.

An oversubscribed field for Monday's $ 100,000 Tropical Park Derby at Gulfstream Park includes the first three finishers from the Nov. 5 Showing Up Stakes on the local all-weather track -- Night Jumper, Venezuelan Triumph and Grand David -- and the first three from the Nov. 19 Gio Ponte Stakes on the turf -- Churchtown, Steady On, Grand Sonata and Dakota Gold.

Golden Glider and Stolen Base might be better than all of them.

Filly & Mare Turf

Seven of the 11 fillies set for Saturday' $300,000 Grade I American Oaks at Santa Anita won their last start -- admittedly, most in races well below Grade I quality.

Also in the mix are 2021 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf champ Pizza Bianca; Mise En Scene, last seen finishing a decent sixth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Keeneland; and Salimah, a Chad Brown trainee who ships in from New York with three wins from four starts and the look of an improving filly.


The numbers stack up to make this a really competitive race, and there should be enough speed to ensure a decent pace. It's the last race on the Opening Day card (4 p.m. PST) and well-worth staying for.

None of the 10 entered for Monday's $100,000 Tropical Park Oaks at Gulfstream Park has yet distinguished herself, but all have shown flashes of ability so it should be a competatitve heat.

Eight names were found in the entry box for Monday's $100,000 Blushing K.D. at Fair Grounds. The oddsmaker made East Coast shipper A Mo Reay the 3-1 morning line pick, followed closely by California import Carpe Vinum and Godolphin homebred Lake Lucerne.

Around the world, around the clock


Sunday's Grade 1 Arima Kinen, also known as the Grand Prix, is one of two races for which Japanese fans get to vote on what horses they'd like to see run.

Titleholder was the No. 1 selection this year, and the fans will be happy to see him running. They'll be even happier if he can erase the memory of an 11th-place finish in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in his last start. Before that, he won the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen and the Grade 1 Tenno Sho Spring.


The field also includes last year's winner, Efforia, late developing but regally bred Geraldina and 3-year-old prospect Equinox. This is the last big race of the year for the older horses. Wednesday's Group 1 Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds is the top-level finale for 2022.


The World Cup Carnival opens its tent flaps in just two weeks, but there's no need to wait that long for hints to possible Dubai World Cup contenders.

Friday's Meydan program, in addition to four nice turf races and the 1,000 Guineas Trial, features the Entisar Stakes at the same 2,000 meters as the $12 million World Cup itself, and features Remorse, who was sixth in the big race last March.

Tadhg O'Shea is set to ride Remorse, a Dubawi gelding, for trainer Bhupat Seemar and owner Al Rashid Racing. The trainer is optimistic.

"Remorse kept on improving last year -- at least 25 pounds or something like that," Seemar said. "He won a Conditions race at Jebel Ali and, although he didn't win after that, he kept on knocking at the door in all the big ones, including a superb run in the World Cup. We'll start him in The Entisar and go from there."


Defending champion returns and Chilean-bred First Constitution, who relocates from the United States, where he won a listed race at Belmont Park, and starts for Salem Bin Ghadayer.

Hong Kong

The changing of the calendar is as good a reason to look forward as to look back, especially with something like next month's Group 1 Stewards' Cup on the schedule.

That 1,600-meter race currently looks like a dramatic showdown that involves the three top horses in Hong Kong -- Romantic Warrior, California Spangle and Golden Sixty, all coming off superb performances in the Longines Hong Kong International Races.

Romantic Warrior posted a dominating victory in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup at 2,000 meters Dec. 1. On that same program, California Spangle denied Golden Sixty a three-peat in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile.

"It will be a good race, but it won't be easy," Romantic Warrior's trainer Danny Shum said. "Those are good milers, they're champions. My horse is good, but 2,000 meters is better [for him]. I wouldn't be afraid of them, but 1,600 meters will be tough."

Any way it's sliced, the confrontation is generational, with 7-year-old Golden Sixty trying to fend off the encroachments of age against three-years-younger Romantic Warrior. And there's also the complication that Golden Sixty's connections might fancy an overseas expedition before their charge hits his expiration date.


"We will see. I still haven't decided," trainer Francis Lui said. "Of course, Japan, it's closer and easier to get to, but we will see. It is too early to tell. Dubai is another option."

Meanwhile, Shum might have another star on his hands in Nordic Dragon, who remained undefeated with a nice win in a Class 3 event at Happy Valley on Wednesday night and remains on the Four-Year-Old-Classic Series trajectory.

Like Romantic Warrior, Nordic Dragon is an Irish-bred 3-year-old Starspangledbanner gelding bought from the Hong Kong International Sale for HK$7 million.

"He's a really good horse, no doubt," Shum said after the Happy Valley win. "I plan to run 1,400 meters at Sha Tin next start ,and then hopefully, he can go in the [Hong Kong] Classic Mile on the 29th. The owners are very happy."

The Four-Year-Old Classic Series starts with the Classic Mile, continues with the Classic Cup at 1,800 meters and finishes with the BMW Hong Kong Derby at 2,000 meters.

Jockey Vincent Ho said Nordic Dragon's distance limits have yet to be determined.

"He's got the speed and he relaxes well," Ho said. "So as long he relaxes at 1,400 meters or the mile, he should still have a good turn of foot. He's still growing, mentally and physically, so let's see."


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