Santa Anita Stable Notes Thursday, December 22, 2022
STABLE NOTES BY VICTOR RYAN
__THURSDAY, DEC. 22, 2022 __
• TAIBA LOOKS TO MAKE ECLIPSE CASE IN MALIBU
• D’AMATO TAKES AIM AT 3RD STRAIGHT TRAINER’S TITLE
• RACING OFFICE ENCOURAGED BY OPENING DAY ENTRIES
• GRADE I WINNER HIT THE ROAD GETS COMEBACK SPOT
TAIBA LOOKS TO MAKE CHAMPIONSHIP CASE IN MALIBU
In 2020, Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic hero Authentic became the 10th 3-year-old male trained by Bob Baffert to win a divisional Eclipse Award. On a blockbuster opening day card at Santa Anita Monday, a potential 11th such champion could emerge for the Hall of Fame trainer in the Grade I, $300,000 Malibu.
There is a case to be made for the honor if the Baffert-trained Taiba were to prevail as expected in the seven-furlong feature for sophomores on opening day. A win would make Taiba the only 3-year-old male this season with three Grade I triumphs of the season, adding to his previous scores in the Santa Anita Derby and Pennsylvania Derby. Taiba also nearly bagged another Grade I this summer in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park when he came up just a head short to Cyberknife.
Meanwhile, the presumed frontrunner in the division is Eastern-based Epicenter, who was injured in the Grade I Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 5 and subsequently retired. He had a single Grade I tally this season, which came in the historic Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
But helping to boost the case for Epicenter are wins in the Grade II Louisiana Derby and GII Risen Star at Fair Grounds, GII Jim Dandy at Saratoga, plus runner-up finishes in both the GI Kentucky Derby and GI Preakness Stakes.
On Wednesday at Clocker’s Corner, Baffert opted for diplomacy when it comes to a potential championship for Taiba.
“I don’t want to get into that discussion. I don't have a vote so I don't know,” he said.
In the Malibu, Taiba will be sprinting for the first time since a six-furlong debut win at Santa Anita in March. He most recently was beaten just a half length for second after a troubled start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic going 1 1/4 miles, which was won by undefeated superstar Flightline.
“He missed the break, sort of slipped leaving there and he lost position,” Baffert said of Taiba’s Classic run. “We wanted him like where Epicenter was (fifth after a quarter mile), but Epicenter beat us to the spot.”
Taiba would improve his position under Mike Smith in the Classic and while no match for Flightline, he was just edged for runner-up by the older horse Olympiad.
“We were hoping we would run second. I knew trying to beat Flightline would be difficult,” Baffert said.
A $1.7 million auction purchase last year, Taiba has worked four times at Santa Anita since the Breeders’ Cup and shows two bullet drills on the tab. He blazed a half mile in 46.6 seconds on Dec. 3 and came back with another bullet on Monday when completing five furlongs in 59.6 seconds.
Baffert indicated he was not overly concerned about the cutback to seven furlongs.
“When he broke his maiden he went nine and change (officially 1:09.8). He’s a fast horse,” Baffert added.
Joining Taiba in the Malibu starting gate for Baffert will be Messier. Sidelined following a 15th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Messier returned in a Nov. 5 allowance at Keeneland where he dueled on the lead for a half mile and then faded. Baffert said the Empire Maker colt bled in that effort.
“(Jockey John Velazquez) pulled him up and he had a little bit (of blood) on the nose,” Baffert said. “I don’t know why as he had never done that before. But he’s come back and worked and hasn’t bled, so I’m not sure why it happened."
Similar to that allowance race, Messier in the Malibu will race without the anti-bleeding medication Lasix as it is not permitted in California stakes races.
The Malibu is carded as the 10th race on Monday’s 11-race opening-day program.
The field: 1. Forbidden Kingdom, Juan Hernandez (3-1); 2. Messier, John Velazquez (6-1); 3. Apprehend, Ramon Vazquez (8-1); 4. Nakatomi, Tyler Gaffalione (10-1); 5. Hoist the Gold, Joel Rosario (12-1); 6. Taiba, Mike Smith (6-5); 7. Perfect Flight, Ricardo Santana Jr. (12-1); 8. Strava, Flavien Prat (15-1); 9. Straight No Chaser, Edwin Maldonaldo (20-1).
D’AMATO AIMS FOR FAST START AND ANOTHER TRAINING TITLE
Phil D’Amato has been the leading trainer the previous two winter meets at Santa Anita. He'll look to hit the ground running on Santa Anita’s Classic Meet opening day with starters in four of the six graded stakes and 11 entries overall.
Last season, the 46-year-old conditioner ran away with the crown when winning 63 races, which was 20 more than runner-up Doug O’Neill.
Headlining D’Amato’s crew on Monday’s stakes-laced card are Balnikhov, the potential favorite in the Grade II, $200,000 Santa Anita Mathis Mile for 3-year-olds on turf; along with Prince Abama and Masteroffoxhounds, who will be among the favorites in the Grade II, $200,000 San Gabriel going 1 1/8 miles on grass. He also has three entered in what looks to be a deep edition of the Grade I, $300,000 American Oaks going 1 1/4 miles.
Balnikhov returns to Santa Anita following a trip to Kentucky where he served national notice with an eye-catching rally from the back of the pack to win the Grade III Bryan Station going a mile at Keeneland on Oct. 29. Eastern based jockey Tyler Gaffalione, who partnered in the Bryan Station rally, will again be in the irons for the Mathis Mile.
“He came back from there well. We gave him a little freshening and had this race in mind,” D’Amato said. “Since he’s come back from Kentucky, he’s as sharp as ever. Hopefully, we’re good enough to win.”
Joining Balnikhov in the Mathis Mile is stablemate and fellow Irish-bred Agatino, who most recently was third in an entry-level allowance at Del Mar when making his second U.S. start on Nov. 26. He is the longest shot on the morning line at 15-1.
In the San Gabriel, Prince Abama -- also an Irish-bred for D’Amato -- exits a victory in last month’s GII Hollywood Turf Cup going 1 1/2 miles at Del Mar. Top jockey Flavien Prat was aboard in the Hollywood Turf Cup and retains the mount on the 4-year-old gelding Monday.
While Prince Abama is winless in two starts at the nine-furlong distance of the San Gabriel, D’Amato does not foresee the cutback from a mile-and-a-half to be an issue.
“We always thought he needed extra ground. Running in those mile races (earlier in his career), he came on strong and galloped out well, but just wasn’t sharp enough to get it done,” the trainer said. “But I think between a mile-and-an-eighth and a mile-and-a-half, those are ideal races for him. The San Gabriel should be a good spot.”
As for Masteroffoxhounds, he exits the GII Seabiscuit Handicap going 1 1/16 on Nov. 26 at Del Mar where he set the pace before getting nailed late to lose by a neck. Prior to that, the 5-year-old War Front horse was a front-running winner of the GII John Henry Turf Championship on Oct. 1 at Santa Anita.
“He’s given me back to back solid performances and we're coming back here on the turf course where he just won a graded stakes, so we’re looking forward to him running a big race,” D’Amato said.
In the Grade I, $300,000 American Oaks, D’Amato has three entered: Rhea Moon, off since winning the GIII Autumn Miss here on Oct. 29; School Dance, who is 2-for-2 since arriving from Gulfstream Park earlier this year; and Oakhurst, who will be making her first start for D’Amato.
Oakhurst was previously based in New York with trainers Chad Brown and then Michelle Nevin. The daughter of Mr. Speaker, who was second in an ungraded stakes at Belmont Park this past summer, arrived in D’Amato’s barn in the fall.
“She’s a nice, solid filly who acts like she wants to run all day,” the trainer said. “So I think style-wise this should be a good spot for her. She’s trained very steadily and we’ll just see how good she is. But she trains like a mile-and-quarter is right up her alley.” D’Amato’s lone representative in a dirt stakes on opening day is Ain’t Easy in the Grade I, $300,000 La Brea for 3-year-old fillies going seven furlongs.
Ain’t Easy is winless in five outings since taking last year’s Grade II Chandelier at Santa Anita. Following a freshening this summer, she tried turf for the first time in a five-furlong sprint at Del Mar Nov.19 and finished third.
“We needed a prep and there were no dirt races,” D’Amato said of the turf experiment. “We tried for weeks to enter a dirt race and it didn’t go. So we went with the turf and it was a nice prep.”
D’Amato also pointed out Ain’t Easy will be reunited with top jockey Joel Rosario, who was aboard for both of her wins last year.
“Hopefully he can do the same on Monday,” he said.
RACING OFFICE ENCOURAGED BY ENTRIES FOR OPENING DAY
A total of 102 horses, which includes four also-eligibles, were entered to compete in 11 races on opening day for an average field size of 8.9 starters per race before scratches.
“We really are pleased with how the opening day card came out,” said Chris Merz, Santa Anita Director of Racing. “We want to thank all the stakeholders, the owners and trainers, for their support. Everybody showed up. Opening day is the biggest day of the meet and we get to put on a great show for everybody the day after Christmas.”
GRADE I WINNER HIT THE ROAD TO RETURN NEXT WEEK
Grade I winner Hit the Road, sidelined since January's Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf, will make his long-awaited return in next Saturday's Grade II, $250,000 Joe Hernandez Stakes over the hillside turf course at about 6 ½ furlongs.
Hit the Road had been nominated to make his comeback in opening day's Grade II San Gabriel Stakes, but trainer Dan Blacker was not too keen on the race's 1 1/8-mile distance. In the Pegasus World Cup going the same nine-furlong trip, he never threatened and finished eighth. It was Hit the Road's only time racing beyond a mile.
“I'm skeptical he can get that trip,” Blacker said. “I think his best distance is a mile and I just didn't want go that distance again, especially off a layoff.
Hit the Road's lone Grade I win came in last year's Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. The 5-year old full horse by More than Ready has never run over the hillside turf course. His lone previous time sprinting came in his 2019 debut when going 4 1/2 furlongs on dirt.
“There were no races going a mile, so really the only race that made sense was the Joe Hernandez,” Blacker said. “And you know, going down the hill, you never know if they are going to run well over the distance until you try it. But typically milers do well, so I think he has a good chance if there's a strong pace.”
Hit the Road sports a record of 13-6-0-2 and earnings of $588,751. He has been breezing steadily at Santa Anita since late October.
“Coming out of the Pegasus, it was nothing major but he had an accumulation of minor things, so we gave him four months off,” Blacker said. “He's been training really well since he's been back.”
The Joe Hernandez, named for the original voice of Santa Anita, will be drawn next Wednesday along with the remainder of the Dec. 31 card.
Finish Lines: First post for Monday’s 11-race card is 11 a.m. Admission gates open at 9 a.m…Spectacular weather is forecast to greet the on-track crowd for opening day at The Great Race Place on Monday. The National Weather Service is calling for mostly sunny skies with a high of 80 degrees in Arcadia…Track announcer Frank Mirahmadi will be the opening day guest on Quigley's Corner, which can be viewed on the Santa Anita simulcast feed starting at 9:50 a.m...Eastern invader Strava in the Malibu is owned in-part by two-time NCAA national champion and Hall of Fame basketball coach Denny Crum…Sad news from Los Alamitos Publicity staffer Mark Ratzky, who conveyed the news of the passing of his longtime press box colleague, Esther Hall, several days ago. Esther Hall, 70, worked for many years as Daily Racing Form Call Taker at all major Thoroughbred meets in Southern California and was a beloved member of the So Cal “Racing Team.”