(Santa Anita starting gate / Photo Courtesy of Santa Anita)

From the Santa Anita Media Team:

FRIDAY’S ALL-DIRT CARD ATTRACTS 8.5 STARTERS PER RACE

With more rain in the forecast for Arcadia this week, the decision was made to run Friday’s eight-race program exclusively on dirt. After entries were taken and the program finalized yesterday, track officials could not be more pleased with the results.

A total of 68 horses were entered on the card, which is dominated by maiden and claiming-level races, providing bettors with a healthy average field size of 8.5 starters per race. First post Friday is 12 p.m. Pacific.

“I was really happy with how the card came out,” Santa Anita Director of Racing Chris Merz said. “To have an average field size over eight for an all-dirt card is absolutely fantastic. Our trainers were really game to run and the racing office was really motivated to get a card out after (Sunday’s) cancellation, so everyone is happy with how it turned out.

A similar all-dirt card was scheduled for Sunday at Santa Anita, but it was canceled after the main track was saturated with rain overnight Saturday. Sunday’s scheduled feature, the Grade III, $200,000 Santa Ynez for 3-year-old fillies at seven furlongs on the main track, was moved to this Sunday.

The National Weather Service forecasts a half an inch of rain on Wednesday and possibly over an inch this Thursday before the weather clears. Merz is confident there will be no interruption to Friday’s card.

“It’s looking like the heavier rain is going to start late Wednesday and into Thursday,” Merz said. “But the track will be sealed and we should be able to roll on Friday.”

AIR FORCE RED IS ON THE ASCENT AFTER HERNANDEZ WIN

Air Force Red added to a strong start to the meet for trainer Leonard Powell when scoring a front-running victory in Saturday’s Grade II, $250,000 Joe Hernandez on the downhill turf course.

It was a second-straight stakes win for Air Force Red and first at the graded level. On Monday, Powell reported the 4-year-old Air Force Blue ridgling was doing “extremely well.” Next up will likely be a tilt in the Grade I, $500,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile on March 4.

“I thought he ran really well and that finished up a nice 2022 for him,” Powell said. “I’m hoping for even bigger things in 2023.”

Air Force Red is owned in partnership by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Holly Golightly. Two races after Air Force Red’s 7-1 upset in the Hernandez, Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners added a second graded-stakes win on the day when Queen Goddess took down the Grade II Robert J. Frankel.

Air Force Red, winner of the restricted Lure Stakes going a mile at Santa Anita in his previous start Oct. 29, upped his record to 10-5-0-0 with $354,100 in earnings. Furthermore, the win in the Hernandez over Grade I winners Smooth Like Strait and Hit the Road among others ran his record to 3-for-4 on the hillside turf course. Notably, this year’s Grade I Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint in the fall will also be contested on Santa Anita’s hillside turf course. Is that a realistic goal for Air Force Red?

“I think so,” Powell said. “In the spring, we are going to stretch him out again because the big races here are at a mile. I think that’s what we’ll do through the spring and re-assess after that. But everything is in play.”

Air Force Red’s win in the Hernandez, which came under leading jockey Juan Hernandez, put a bow on what’s been a career-best season for Powell. The 46-year-old Frenchman finished 2022 with $2.1 million in earnings and five graded-stakes wins, which includes Dicey Mo Chara’s tally in the Grade II San Gabriel on opening day.

As for Dicey Mo Chara, his win in the San Gabriel provided a free berth in the Grade I, $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf on Jan. 28 at Gulfstream Park. That race is under consideration for the Red Baron’s Barn and Rancho Temescal color bearer, Powell reiterated Monday.

“I haven’t talked to the ownership yet, but everything is still possible,” he noted.

G1 WINNER QUEEN GODDESS ROLLS IN COMEBACK

More than seven months on the sidelines did little to slow Grade I winner Queen Goddess. The newly turned 5-year-old mare by Empire Maker strutted her stuff on Saturday in the Grade II Robert J. Frankel when taking the field on a merry chase and scoring by 2 ½ lengths under Hall of Famer John Velazquez. “Nice return off a layoff,” trainer Michael McCarthy said Monday. “She had been kind of touting herself here in the mornings.”

Owned by Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Gary Barber, Queen Goddess clicked off comfortable fractions of 24.39, 48.89 and 1:12.42 before crossing the wire in 1:48.35 for 1 1/8 miles on turf. It was her third graded stakes win following previous scores in the 2020 American Oaks and Grade III Santa Ana last March, both at Santa Anita.

“She’s a free-running filly that just likes to get out there and do her thing,” McCarthy said, adding he is not sure where Queen Goddess will run next.

Two races prior to Queen Goddess’s victory Saturday, another Grade I winner for McCarthy, Smooth Like Strait, was the beaten favorite in the Grade II Joe Hernandez when trying the hillside turf course for the first time. The now 6-year-old horse by Midnight Lute chased a loose-on-the-lead Air Force Red in the Hernandez before faltering to fourth in the stretch.

McCarthy said Smooth Like Strait was doing well after what was his third start in 56 days. He shipped to Keeneland for the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Nov. 5, where he finished fourth, then wheeled back three weeks later to be seventh in the Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar on Nov. 26.

McCarthy said future plans for Smooth Like Strait, who won last year’s Grade I Shoemaker Mile in May, remain undetermined.

“It seems like he’s doing good, but we’re not sure what we’re going to do with him yet,” McCarthy said.

Owned by Cannon Thoroughbreds, Smooth Like Straight has a record of 5-2-1 in 10 starts with earnings of $470,580.

Finish Lines: All six turf races on Monday will remain on the grass, though there have been some minor adjustments. Race 4, originally scheduled for six furlongs on turf, will now be run at 5 ½ furlongs; race 6, originally scheduled for 6 ½ furlongs out of the turf chute, will now be run at 5 ½ furlongs; and race 8, carded at six furlongs on turf, will now be run at about 6 ½ furlongs on the hillside turf course…Sunday kicks off the road to the Kentucky Derby at Santa Anita with the Grade III, $100,000 Sham Stakes going a mile. Entries will be taken on Thursday…On Saturday, Santa Anita will offer fans a mandatory payout in the 20-cent Single Ticket Rainbow Pick Six Jackpot. It is expected Saturday’s total Rainbow Six pool will exceed $3 million.