Santa Anita kicked off the winter racing season in Southern California Tuesday with an upset in the Grade II San Antonio, the expected showdown between Unique Bella and Paradise Woods in the La Brea and two other Grade I races.
In Japan, Kitasan Black wound up his racing career Sunday with a victory as popular as it was dominant.
The schedule returns to something like normal in the coming week and we'll see to that soon enough. For now, enjoy this interim report:
If the question is who takes over as top horse after Gun Runner retires ... well, Tuesday's $300,000 Grade II San Antonio Stakes on Santa Anita's opening day didn't provide any answers. The prohibitive favorite, Collected, never came close to catching a loose-on-the-lead Giant Expectations and finished third, behind that one and Accelerate. In fact, Collected barely saved third, 1/2 length over stablemate Hoppertunity.
Collected, a 4-year-old City Zip colt, came in to the San Antonio the winner of six of his last seven starts for trainer Bob Baffert with the sole loss in that stretch a second to Gun Runner in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Giant Expectations, by contrast, was fifth in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship in October and sixth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in his last two starts.
Winning rider Gary Stevens said the pace of the race had a lot to do with the outcome as he was allowed to get away with the first half mile in 49.19. "I didn't expect that at all," Stevens said. "The race was pretty much over at that point. It was a lot of fun." Still, Collected didn't show the kind of late run that would justify the support shown for him going into the Jan. 27 Pegasus Stakes at Gulfstream Park, a race in which he is expected again to face Gun Runner -- and now, perhaps Giant Expectations.
Collected's jockey, Mike Smith, blamed himself for the loss. "It was a bad ride," Smith said. "It was my fault. I slipped leaving the gate. We should have been on the lead. Then they were going too slow and we couldn't get there in the end."
Giant Expectations' trainer, Peter Eurton, said he wouldn't be opposed to taking one of the three spots still open for the $16 million Grade I Pegasus World Cup next month at Gulfstream Park -- but with a caveat. "He does prefer the shorter fields because then he can get his trip," Eurton said. "Obviously, the Pegasus will have 12 horses."
The San Antonio was only the first of four graded stakes on the traditional Dec. 26 opener at "The Great Race Place."
City of Light, taking a big class jump, led all the way to a 2-lengths victory in the $300,000 Grade I Malibu for 3-year-olds. Edwards Going Left was second, 1 length ahead of Favorable Outcome. The favorite, Pavel, finished fourth. City of Light, a Quality Road colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.21 with Drayden Van Dyke in the irons. He came into the race with one win and three seconds from four starts but the Malibu was his first stakes race. "This horse has a lot of natural ability," said winning trainer Michael McCarthy. "I've had a lot of faith in this horse from the first day I saw him at Keeneland as a September yearling. He's a big horse and it took him a while to come to himself. When a horse is doing good, you gotta go. You gotta take a shot."
The punters had it right in the $300,000 Grade I La Brea for 3-year-old fillies as Unique Bella rallied by pacesetting Paradise Woods, defeating that one by 3/4 length. The heavy favorites were trailed, 1 1/4 lengths back, by Mopotism. Unique Bella's five-race winning streak was snapped in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint when she was sent to the front over the same 7-furlongs trip and faded to finish seventh. Her more patient trip on Tuesday got her home in 1:21.49 with Mike Smith aboard. Paradise Woods won the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks way back in April but then finished 11th in the Kentucky Oaks. She won the Grade I Zenyatta in September and finished third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last month. "I was concerned about going too fast early," Smith said. "That was the problem in the Breeders' Cup. She has been training very aggressively in the mornings, so that was my concern. She relaxed and rated and was happy with the pace she had to run today. She gave it all she had to get the job done."
On the firm turf course, Bowies Hero waited just off the pace in the $200,000 Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile for 3-year-olds, came out for running room in the lane and collared pacesetter Kroy in the final yards, winning by 1/2 length. The favorite, Big Score, ran from the back of the pack to finish third. Bowies Hero, an Artie Schiller colt, finished in 1:33.46 with Kent Desormeaux riding.
Kitasan Black, making his final start before retiring to stud, was away quickly in Sunday's Group 1 Arima Kinen at Nakayama Racecourse, controlled the pace and won handily by 1 1/2 lengths to the delight of a roaring crowd of more than 100,000. Fans vote which horses they want to see run in the Arima Kinen and, this year, they overwhelmingly backed Kitasan Black. The support continued with a roar at the start of the 2,500-meter race, another cheer as he passed the stands for the first time finished in a frenzied outburst as Kitasan Black secured the win.
The striking 5-year-old son of Black Tide, a grandson of Sunday Silence, scored his seventh Grade 1 win, tying several of the best horses in Japanese racing history. He pushed his career earnings to 1,876,843,000 Yen, about US$16,572,523.
Winning the Arima Kinen for the first time after finishing third and second in the two previous years, Kitasan Black also avenged a third-place finish in his last start, the Japan Cup. In that race, Cheval Grand ran by him in deep stretch to win as Kitasan Black faded to finish third. Cheval Grand was a late-running third in the Arima Kinen, just a nose behind Queens Ring.
"He ran a great race," said winning rider Yutaka Take. "I just concentrated on letting him run his race so there'd be no regrets. I was going to decide on the pace depending on his start but he broke really well so I let him take the front without hesitation."
Kitsan Black, bred by Yanagawa Bokujo and owned by Ono Shoji, retires to stand at Shadai Stallion Station beginning next season. Queens Ring, a 5-year-old daughter of Manhattan Café who was bred at Shadai, also heads for retirement.
X Y Jet, showing no rust after being away for more than 13 months, led all the way to a convincing score in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Mr. Prospector Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Despite being soundly bumped at the start and drifting out a bit in the stretch, the 5-year-old Kantharos gelding finished 1/2 length to the good of First Growth and did not appear about to yield that advantage while finishing 6 furlongs in 1:09.45 under Emisael Jaramillo. X Y Jet, runner-up by a nose in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen in 2016, had been idle, recovering from knee surgery, since finishing third in the Grade III Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park Nov. 19, 2016.
Trainer Jorge Navarro said he hopes to enter X Y Jet in the Sunshine Millions Sprint Jan. 20 and then return to Dubai for another swing at the Golden Shaheen. "We'll see how he comes out" of the Mr. Prospector, Navarro said. "If he comes out, they're all in trouble. That's all I can say."
Here's one to watch closely: Gidu, an Irish-bred Frankel colt out of the Unbridled's Song mare Manerbe, romped to victory in his second start Saturday, winning easily at 5 furlongs on the turf under John Velazquez. The gray colt, trained by Todd Pletcher, was slammed soundly from the inside at the start, then was in control all the way and appeared ready to keep going. He was a $450,000 purchase for Zayat Stables in Deauville in August 2016. Todd Pletcher is the trainer. Gidu translates from Latvian as "guide".
Zanotti, the longest shot on the board, ran down the pacesetting favorite, Alex the Terror, in the final jumps of Saturday's $125,000 Queens County Stakes, winning by a neck. Alex the Terror barely saved second, a nose in front of Kurilov. Zanotti, a 4-year-old Gio Ponti gelding, ran 9 furlongs over a sloppy, sealed track in 1:51.64 with Jorge Vargas Jr. in the irons. Zanotti's 38-1 odds belied the fact he had finished first or second in each of his previous eight races, albeit at lower levels. "He hasn't run since July, that was my main concern, but he was training so good," Vargas said. "When I asked him to take a shot, he was all out for me."
Do Share took the wide route to victory in Saturday's $100,000 Gravesend Stakes, outfinishing Life in Shambles to his inside by 1/2 length. Threefiveindia was a neck farther back in third. Do Share, a 4-year-old Candy Ride gelding, got 6 furlongs on the sloppy track in 1:10.77 with Junior Alvarado riding. Trainer Linda Rice said she ran Do Share back on just a week's rest in part because, "I know he likes a little moisture in the track. I saw the weather forecast and I thought he'd like it." He now is 6-for-8 at the Big A. Alvarado said trainer Linda Rice told him he had to get Do Share outside for the stretch run. "I thought it was a little early to move outside but at the three-eighths pole I just took him outside to see what I have because he was not giving me anything. As soon as I put him in the six path, he started picking it up."
Valadorna stalked the pace in Tuesday's $50,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes for fillies and mares, blew by the leader, Sky Flower, in the lane and went on to win by 3 1/2 lengths over that foe. Promise of Spring raced evenly to finish third. Valadorna, a 3-year-old Curlin filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:42.11 with Brian Hernandez in the irons. She was second in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and third in this year's Grade II Rachel Alexandra Stakes over the New Orleans course. She then was away until November. She has four wins, three seconds and one third from eight career starts. "I was fortunate enough to be on the best horse,"Hernandez said. "She proved it for us the whole way around. I just kind of sat up there and she made our job easy and made us look good."