Southern California racing fans reckon the New Year starts the day after Christmas when Santa Anita opens it winter meeting. This year, there were presents aplenty for the 41,373 fans on the grounds, including a pair of Grade I events two Grade IIs.
The rest of the weekend rings out the year with solid features at Fair Grounds, Gulfstream Park, Laurel Park and another pair of graded stakes at Santa Anita.
Japan also hosts its final Grade 1 event of 2018, the Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds.
As the days lengthen, let's start with the big stuff already run and yet to come, then summarize the rest. Off we go.
A year ago, trainer Bob Baffert thought McKinzie, fresh off a win in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity, might be his Kentucky Derby horse. Twelve months later, after an injury to McKinzie and a Justify Triple Crown to Baffert's credit, it was McKinzie once again providing the white-haired trainer a year-end bonus with a late-running score in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes for 3-year-olds.
McKinzie did it with class, too, rallying into the stretch and drawing off late to finish 4 3/4 lengths ahead of runner-up Identity Politics, covering 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.48 with Mike Smith in the irons. Still Having Fun was a long shot third. Baffert also saddled Nero, Solomini and Ax Man, who finished seventh, ninth and twelfth.
McKinzie, a Street Sense colt, came into the race off a 12th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic but before that, won the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby.
"Coming in to this race they were all training really well," Baffert said. "But the horse (McKinzie) is just an outstanding individual. You could just tell he was getting in gear ... The good ones show up and he showed up. Down the backside he was way back there and I thought, 'Well, I hope they're going really, really fast."
Wednesday was Boxing Day so, of course, Gift Box hooked up with the favorite, Battle of Midway, in a duel through the stretch in Santa Anita's $300,000 Grade II San Antonio Stakes, finally holding off that rival by 1/2 length. Dabster ran evenly to finish third, 3/4 length farther in arrears. Gift Box, 5-year-old son of Twirling Candy, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.88 with Joel Rosario up. Trained by John Sadler, Gift Box posted his second win after four straight seconds.
"He had some interesting races back east, some highly rated allowance races," Sadler said. "He was fourth to Arrogate in the Travers and he was second in another stakes race at Saratoga, so there are a lot of nice running lines in there ... Hopefully this horse will be in the handicap division this year and we're not opposed to going to Dubai with him."
Spiced Perfection added some interest to the 3-year-old filly competition with a pace-stalking upset victory in Wednesday's $300,000 Grade I La Brea Stakes at Santa Anita. With Flavien Prat in the kip, the Smiling Tiger filly raced mid-pack, challenged on the turn and won by 1 1/4 lengths over Hot Autumn. Emboldened was third and Happy Like a Fool fourth. The favorite, Dream Tree, faded steadily to finish last of eight. Spiced Perfection, trained by Brian Kornier, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.54. It was her third win from her last four starts and her first in a Grade I event.
Kornier said an offer to buy Spiced Perfection for $500,000 was inexplicably withdrawn before the race. "They made the offer before they ever looked at her and then took back the offer. It was a done deal and they backed out," the trainer said. "So it was good to see her win after somebody said, 'No, we don't want her.'"
America's Tale led from the start in Wednesday's $75,000 Tiffany Lass Stakes at Fair Grounds and easily prevailed by 5 lengths. The favorite, Shenandoah Queen, made up some ground late to finish second, 2 1/2 lengths in front of Moonlit Garden. America's Tale, a 3-year-old Gio Ponti filly, got 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.14 with Colby Hernandez in the irons. The Bernie Flint trainee ends 2018 with three straight wins.
River Boyne was away slowly in Wednesday's $200,000 Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita, rallied four-wide into the stretch and outfinished Desert Stone to win by a head. Combatant was third. River Boyne, an Irish-bred colt by Dandy Man, sent to the post as the odds-on favorite and finished in 1:34.52 over firm going with Flavien Prat riding. He has finished out of the money only once in 11 races since arriving from Ireland.
"He's solid," trainer Jeff Mullins said of River Boyne. "You know when you lead him over here he's going to give it you. He might not get it every time but he's going to give it you. I thought Flavien might have had him a little too far back but he knows more of what he's got under him than I do."
Amandine rated behind pacesetting favorite Ms Bad Behavior in Wednesday's $100,000 Lady of Shamrock Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita, then came and got that one in the stretch and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Ms Bad Behavior held second, 3/4 length to the good of Stradella Road. Amandine, a British-bred daughter of Shamardal, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:35.10 with Drayden Van Dyke up for trainer Jeff Mullins. And, speaking of Amandine, now read this:
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $300,000 Grade I American Oaks at Santa Anita, a 1 1/4-mile test, drew a field of nine, including Amandine. She would be running on just three days' rest after winning the Lady of Shamrock Stakes over the same grass. Californiagoldrush finished third in the Grade I Del Mar Oaks in August, then shipped across the continent to win the Grade II Sands Point at Belmont Park in September in her most recent effort. Graham Motion ships in Colonia off a victory in the Grade III Pin Oak Valley View at Keeneland. Princess Warrior won the Grade II Mrs. Revere at Churchill Downs in her last outing. Paved has not missed the top three in five starts and Santa Anita but finished 12th in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf in her last outing. Competitionofideas has shown promise back East and trainer Chad Brown can't be ignored in any big grass race.
Eight signed on for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes on the Santa Anita green course. Fahan Mura was on a roll on the West Coast before tossing in a clunker in the Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar Dec. 2. Amboseli exits a runner-up showing in the Grade III Cardinal Handicap in Louisville. Escape Clause ran off eight straight wins in Minnesota and Canada's Midwestern provinces before shipping in to win her ninth straight race at Del Mar -- an 18-1 surprise with an assist from the stewards. The run ended with an honorable third in the Grade III Red Carpet Handicap two weeks later. Excellent Sunset, who was demoted from first in that Escape Clause win, is back.
The Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes Friday at Nakayama Racecourse Dec. 28 provides an opportunity for late-developing, middle-distance horses to show their stuff in Japan's final Grade 1 of the year.
Several have taken that opportunity and Rey de Oro in 2016. Victoire Pisa won in 2009 went on to win the Grade 1 Arima Kinen in 2010 and the Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) in 2011. Rey de Oro, winner of the 2016 Hopeful, accounted for the Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) this October and finished second in the Arima Kinen Dec. 23.
This year's field includes the likes of Saturnalia, a half brother to Epiphanela. Trainer Kazuya Nakatake also is expected to saddle Breaking Dawn, a colt by the aforementioned Victoire. Admire Justa, a Just a Way colt who sold for more than $1.37 million as a yearling, has won his last two and Christophe Lemaire, Japan's top jockey, retains the mount. Others to watch include Mikki Black, Nishino Daisy and Vin de Garde.
The Saturday card at the Big Easy track features a pair of 1-mile turf races for 3-year-olds, the open Woodchopper Stakes and the Pago Hop for fillies. Each is worth $75,000.
A half dozen stakes, all on the grass, grace the Saturday card. Featured are yin-and-yang $100,000 races. The H. Allen Jerkens Stakes is run at 2 miles. The Janus Stakes is 5 furlongs.
Two-year-olds take the spotlight on a card with four stakes. The $100,000 Heft Stakes is open. The $100,000 Gin Talking is restricted to juvenile fillies. Both are contested at 7 furlongs on the main track.
The New York oval's features are state-bred events at 9 furlongs. Saturday's $100,000 Alex M. Robb is open. Sunday's $100,000 Bay Ridge is for fillies and mares.