Preview: A Look At This Weekend’s Top Races & Santa Anita’s Opening Day Stakes

(Pavel, who will run in the Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Dec. 26)

In will be Christmas Eve’s Eve, and nearly the last day of this year’s “shopping season” for our annual holiday celebration. And, the connections of several big horses will be trying to get a racing “shopping bargain and/or steal” as they prepare to run in Stakes races all over the country on Saturday.

On Tuesday, Dec. 26, Santa Anita will celebrate all the efforts of the REAL Santa, by opening its’ meet with a pair of very nice Graded Stakes events — The Grade 1 Malibu, which has attracted a top end crowd led by Pavel; and the Grade 1 La Brea, which will pit the top fillies Paradise Woods and Unique Bella, among others.

It will be a great few days to finish the last-minute snag buys for the kids and the other cherished loved ones in your family. And, it should be a great few days to catch a few fast horses that can out-run any of those reindeer of the Big Guy’s — including the one with the nose band, Rudolph.

Here is a closer look at several key races on Saturday and Dec. 26:

At The Fairgrounds in the “Big Easy”:

There is not a Stakes event carded on today’s slate of races, but there is a good race to watch, for sure. If you get a chance, tune it to today’s 5th race, a Maiden Special Weight event for Fillies and Mares 3-years-old and up. This one will be contested at 1 mile and 70 yards, but more importantly will showcase the return to the races for Princess Julia, a Distorted Humor filly who has made just three career starts to date and has not run since Jan. 26 at Santa Anita.

This highly touted filly ran a game second to eventual Santa Anita Oaks’ runaway winner, Paradise Woods, on that day in January and was beaten just a couple of lengths by her for second in that MSW race. But it was her last time in the barn of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. She has since been shipped over to the barn of Brendan Walsh, who hits with .21% with newcomers to the barn.

She is training quite well for this comeback effort, and should be well prepped for her first time routing and go around two turns. She is worth watching today.

AT Gulfstream on Saturday:

As reported on www.brisnet.com, X Y Jet will attempt to win his second Mr. Prospector Stakes (G3) at Gulfstream Park when lining up in Saturday’s $100,000 event against nine rivals.

The Jorge Navarro trainee actually earned his first stakes victory when capturing the 2015 edition of the six-furlong race by 9 1/4 lengths. It was part of a five-race win streak X Y Jet compiled that also included the 2016 Sunshine Millions Sprint and Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes (G3). The Kantharos gelding then shipped overseas to Meydan for a neck second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-G1).

X Y Jet would compete just twice more following that high-level effort, running fifth in the Vosburgh Stakes (G1) and third in the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash last out in November 2016. Regular rider Emisael Jaramillo has the call on the five-year-old.

Stablemate Fire Mission is riding a four-race win streak into the Mr. Prospector, which will be his 60th lifetime start. The Wildcat Heir gelding was claimed at the beginning of the year and immediately scored in the Trust Buster Starter Stakes for his new connections. Tyler Gaffalione had piloting duties most recently on November 26 at Gulfstream Park West and stays aboard for Fire Mission’s step up in class.

Duel stakes hero Sonic Mule is 3-2-0-1 at Gulfstream, but has won just once from seven starts this year. The Todd Pletcher sophomore enters here under John Velazquez off a third in the City of Laurel Stakes on November 11. Fast Friar earned a 101 BRIS Speed rating for missing by only a head in the John J. Reilly Handicap while making his stakes bow in late July. The four-year-old gelding gets Nik Juarez aboard.

The Draw, courtesy of Brisnet:

<mrprospector17.jpg>

At Aqueduct on Saturday:
Godolphin Racing’s Watershed will headline a competitive field of nine in the $125,000 Queens County for 3-year-olds and up, one of two stakes races on Saturday at Aqueduct Racetrack alongside the $100,000 Gravesend for 3-year-old and ups.

Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, The Bernardini sired horse kicked off his 5-year-old campaign in January at Gulfstream Park winning an optional claiming race. Following a disappointing ninth-place finish in the Grade 2 Mac Diarmida Stakes he returned to win the Grade 3 Ben Ali at Keeneland last April. Next out finishing fifth in the Grade 3 Pimlico Special and a fourth-place running in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap at Belmont Park, he returned to finish fourth off a layoff last out in the Richard W. Small at Luarel Park on November 11.

The 7-2 morning line favorite, Watershed will make his first start at the Big A with a lifetime record of two wins from five starts at the Queens County distance of 1 1/8 Miles, Watershed will depart from post 3 with Pace Lopez aboard.

Entering off a game second-place effort in the Grade 3 Discovery on November 25 at Aqueduct is Fern Circle Stable’s Senior Investment. Trained by Ken McPeek, The 3-year-old son of Discreetly Mine has not visited the winner’s circle since last April when he won the Grade 3 Lexington at Keeneland but will make his first start in a non-graded stakes race in the Queens County since winning an optional claiming race at Oaklawn Park in February.

Drawing post 4 at odds of 5-1 on the morning line, Senior Investment will be ridden by Manuel Franco.   

Looking to earn his second straight win after capturing the Swatara on November 22 at Penn National is Discreet Lover for owner and trainer Urah St. Lewis. A 4-year-old son of Repent, he has three wins from 13 starts this year with one second and a pair of third-place finishes. 

In the $100,000 Gravesend, carded as Race 7, a talented field of eight runners includes multiple graded stakes winner Green Gratto.

The 7-year-old horse out of Here’s Zealous draws the outside post and will carry the highweight of 124 pounds for owner and trainer Gaston Grant. Last out, the fan favorite finished sixth in the Grade 3 Fall Highweight on Thanksgiving Day at Aqueduct, fading in the stretch after taking the lead early in his signature front-running style. Jockey Rafael Hernandez will get the mount.

Finishing second in the Fall Highweight was Amerman Racing LLC’s 

Threefiveindia, a 4-year-old Street Hero colt seeking his first stakes win. Trained by Chad Brown, Threefiveindia has posted a career high Beyer Speed Figure of 99 three times including his performance in the Fall Highweight and his second place effort in the 2016 running of the Grade 3 Bold Ruler at Belmont Park.  

Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano will have the mount on the 2-1 morning-line favorite, and will break from post 7.

Also exiting the Fall Highweight is Paradise Farms’ Life in Shambles, who finished third that day for trainer Steve Asmussen. The 6-year-old Broken Vow gelding has collected more than a half a million dollars in earnings in 33 starts, with 8 victories to his name, but has yet to win a stake. 

At 3-1 on the morning line, Life in Shambles will break from post 3 with Irad Ortiz, Jr. in the irons.

G1 Malibu at Santa Anita on Dec. 26/Lead by Pavel

Pavel didn’t open his racing career until July and quickly established himself as a talented performer, recording a convincing Grade 3 victory and a third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) in his first four starts. He appears poised to make a major impact in 2018 but will first look to cap his 3-year-old season with a Grade 1 victory in Tuesday’s $300,000 Malibu at Santa Anita.

One of four graded stakes on the traditional December 26 opening-day program, the 7-furlong Malibu has attracted a field of nine sophomores.

After rolling to an impressive debut win, Pavel followed with a respectable fourth in the Jim Dandy (G2) at Saratoga, finishing only a head back of Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and one spot better than Preakness victor Cloud Computing. Doug O’Neill shipped the son of Creative Cause to Parx for his third career start and Pavel crushed foes in the Smarty Jones (G3), scoring by six lengths beneath regular rider Mario Gutierrez.

The gray colt followed with a good showing in the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup, registering a career-best 108 BRIS Speed rating finishing only 1 ¾ lengths back in third, and Pavel will try to rebound after finding the waters too deep in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), checking in a well-beaten 10th behind Gun Runner.

It will not be easy for Pavel, though. Look at the newbies to the Stakes world that have a big shot in here:

Dabster was OUR Winter Book Play for the 2017 Kentucky Derby. He appeared ready to join the Triple Crown trail last winter after finishing first in his initial two starts for Bob Baffert (disqualified from debut) but headed to the sidelines and wasn’t seen again until the November 3 Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard at Del Mar, returning with a convincing win over entry-level allowance rivals. The well-bred son of Curlin cost $1 million at the 2016 Fasig-Tipton Florida 2-year-old sale and Dabster will retain the services of Flavien Prat.

C Z Rocket brings a three-for-three mark into his first stakes appearance and hasn’t been seriously tested yet. A two-length debut winner at Saratoga, the Al Stall Jr.-trained colt followed with a 2 ½-length allowance tally at Keeneland. The latter came at 7-furlongs and C Z Rocket continued to shine while stretching out to a one-turn mile for his last outing at Churchill Downs, posting a two-length decision over a nice field that included Gotham (G3) winner J Boys Echo in second. By City Zip, C Z Rocket likes to rally from just off the pace with Jose Lezcano.

Here’s the field, courtesy of Brisnet.com:

<malibu17.jpg>

G1 La Brea at Santa Anita on Dec. 26

Though both were pointing for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) earlier this year, Paradise Woods and Unique Bella missed out on running against each other. The talented duo even ended up in different Breeders’ Cup races at Del Mar.

The separation has come to an end, though as Tuesday, the traditional day-after Christmas opening day at Santa Anita Park, will see the pair square off in the $300,000 La Brea Stakes (G1) as part of an eight-filly field going seven furlongs.

Paradise Woods probably lost out on champion three-year-old honors when finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), three lengths behind fellow sophomore filly and Distaff runner-up Abel Tasman. She entered that contest in a prime spot to claim the Eclipse Award following a romping, wire-to-wire, 5 1/4-length victory in the Zenyatta Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita.

That was the Union Rags filly’s first win since an 11 3/4-length domination over Abel Tasman in the Santa Anita Oaks (G1) earlier this year in March. Paradise Woods was unable to factor in either the Kentucky Oaks or Torrey Pines Stakes (G3) in her next pair, but rebounded in a big way to take the Zenyatta for trainer Richard Mandella. Jockey Flavien Prat has been aboard for all seven of Paradise Woods’ efforts and has the call once again on Tuesday.

Unique Bella was perfect in four starts this year before trying the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) last out with just one race under her girth since March.

Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the gray lass broke her maiden by 10 1/4 lengths at Del Mar last November in her second start. She romped by 7 1/2 lengths in the Santa Ynez Stakes (G3) in her season opener at Santa Anita Park and proceeded to add effortless wins in the Las Virgenes Stakes (G2) and Santa Ysabel Stakes (G3) to her resume. Those races were all leading up to the Kentucky Oaks on May 5 at Churchill Downs, but Unique Bella suffered a shin issue not long after the Santa Ysabel and was sidelined until October, when she returned to take the L.A. Woman Stakes (G3) by 3 1/2 lengths.

She filled the seventh spot in the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar on November 4, but could close out her three-year-old campaign on a winning note in this spot with regular rider Mike Smith aboard.

Miss Sunset brings a three-race win streak into the La Brea, including a half-length victory in the Raven Run Stakes (G2) last out at Keeneland for trainer Jeff Bonde. The Into Mischief filly was making her graded bow in that spot and also her first start outside of California. Though she’s competed at Santa Anita, Miss Sunset has yet to score on the track’s dirt, missing by a half-length in the Melair Stakes, finishing third in the Evening Jewel Stakes and throwing in a subpar last-of-six in an off-the-turf allowance/optional claimer to kick off her sophomore campaign in January. The bay lass, who has finished worse than third only twice in her 11-race career, breaks from the inside Tuesday under jockey Julien Leparoux.

Faypien finished third in her career debut at Santa Anita on March 11 before going on a three-race winning skein that included the Summertime Oaks and Angels Flight Stakes. The Bob Baffert charge hasn’t visited the winner’s circle that latter contest, but has also only made two starts since. The Ghostzapper filly ran second in the Test Stakes (G1) at Saratoga in early August, then filled that same spot in the Beverly J. Lewis Stakes at Los Alamitos last out on September 9. Drayden Van Dyke will be in the irons for the first time as Faypien takes a step up off that event.

Here’s a look at the field, courtesy of Brisnet.com:

<labrea17.jpg>

That’s what I wanted to do, I wanted to teach him. I wanted to give him a good schooling and see how he reacted. In the end he ran good, just a little green that’s it.”

John Velazquez, Jockey of Noble Indy (third)
  • Gene McLean

    Gene McLean

    Gene McLean began his professional career in 1977 as a sportswriter and columnist for the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Ky., and was recognized as one of the state’s best writers, winning the prestigious “Sportswriter of the Year” honor in 1985. Now the President and Publisher of The Pressbox, McLean sets ...

    Full Bio >

More From Gene McLean