MEMORABLE SANTA ANITA OPENER ‘A CELEBRATION’
OMAHA BEACH HEADS TO FLORIDA FOR RICH PEGASUS
MIXED EMOTIONS FOR ESPINOZA ABOARD BELLAFINA
OISEAU DE GUERRE OFF THE RAIL FOR JOE HERNANDEZ
FANS ENJOY ‘A CELEBRATION’ AT SANTA ANITA OPENER
Should the racing gods ever decree that the consummate book be written on the glory that is Santa Anita, the final chapter is poised for history.
It was written yesterday, when everything that makes Santa Anita great was in full flower, frenetic yet tranquil, in all its natural splendor. Scenic mountains, verdant palms, azure skies, a balmy breeze as 35,088 devotees basked under a warm winter sun.
Dominant victories by Gift Box and Omaha Beach, dramatic photo finishes, a last-to-first triumph by a one-eyed filly, a scintillating debut victory by Devil Made Me Do It and a $110.80 winner to the delight of longshot players.
Oh, and Mike Smith, still vanquishing Father Time at the age of 54, won four races, two of them Grade I’s to set a record for career Grade I successes at 217, one more than fellow Hall of Fame member Jerry Bailey.
Ghosts of the past from Seabiscuit to John Henry had plenty to smile about.
“I think yesterday epitomized what Mike is all about,” said trainer John Shirreffs, who gave Smith a leg up on Hard Not to Love for her victory in the Grade I La Brea Stakes. “He’s about the horse, and he’s always been about the horse.
“It’s the horse first; everything else is secondary. That’s what I love about Mike.”
Like most, Shirreffs too was smitten with the atmosphere on opening day.
“After Hard Not to Love won her race, I heard the crowd cheering for her, and that was very reminiscent for me (alluding to his great mare Zenyatta),” Shirreffs continued.
“Then when I was walking back to the Grandstand, I thought, ‘My goodness. Everybody’s having a good time. How fun horse racing really is.’
“Santa Anita did a great job. They had these floral arrangements where people could take selfies in front of them, and I saw a lot of people doing that.
“Yesterday was really a celebration.”
OMAHA BEACH LEAVING FOR RICH PEGASUS WORLD CUP
Omaha Beach, who fulfilled expectations in his final race at Santa Anita Saturday by winning the Grade I Runhappy Malibu Stakes, came out of the race in good order and it’s on to Gulfstream Park for his final race in the Grade I, $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 25. The son of War Front goes to stud after that.
“He came out of the race very good and he’ll leave Tuesday, Dec. 31,” trainer Richard Mandella said Sunday morning. “We thought he was leaving on the 30th, but it’s the 31st.
“We could hear the fans cheering for him, so it seems like he’s got a following. Waiting to have opening day on Saturday was a good thing, for the horses and for the public.”
Meanwhile, Santa Anita will be left with fond memories of Omaha Beach and what more he might have accomplished had he continued to race. “It’s too bad we’re losing him,” said trainer David Bernstein, in his 45th year at Santa Anita who conditioned 1994 Eclipse Award winner as champion older male The Wicked North. “We haven’t seen the best of him.”
ESPINOZA: BELLAFINA ‘AWESOME’ IN DEFEAT
Victor Espinoza was happy to pick up the mount on 3-5 favorite Bellafina in Saturday’s Grade I La Brea Stakes, but understandably disappointed she finished second to 11-1 shot Hard Not to Love, who rallied from ninth and last at the half-mile marker to win by 2 ¼ lengths.
“The race didn’t set up as good for her as we would have liked,” Espinoza said Sunday morning. “She was pressured by Baffert’s filly (Mother Mother), but she still ran very well.”
It was the first time a jockey other than Flavien Prat had ridden Bellafina in her 13 career starts, so trainer Simon Callaghan had reason to offer Espinoza some pre-race prose.
“He said try to break out the gate clear and see how the race sets up,” Espinoza said. “It was good but we never had a chance to relax on the lead (with rapid fractions of 21.70, 44.41 and 1:09.31. The final time for seven furlongs was 1:22.17).
“That made it hard for her, but she ran an awesome race.”
PACE SHOULD AID OISEAU DE GUERRE IN UPGRADED HERNANDEZ
After running at Golden Gate Fields in his last four races, Oiseau de Guerre (bird of war in French) returns to Santa Anita New Year’s Day Wednesday for the $200,000 Joe Hernandez Stakes, recently promoted to Grade II status.
“He gets off the rail (from his last two races) and it looks like there’s a lot of pace,” trainer Michael McCarthy said of the son of War Front. “He should be rolling late.”
The Joe Hernandez, race eight of 10 with an 11:30 a.m. first post: Tribalist, Ruben Fuentes; Double Tough, Victor Espinoza; Grinning Tiger, Jose Valdivia Jr.; Texas Wedge, Flavien Prat; Oiseau de Guerre, Geovanni Franco; True Valour, Drayden Van Dyke; Captain Scotty, Joel Rosario; Legends of War, Abel Cedillo; Blitzkrieg, Rafael Bejarano; Carnivorous, Mario Gutierrez; and also eligible Bay Muzik, Tyler Baze.
Santa Anita’s popular Dollar Day will be offered on New Year’s Day. Fans can purchase hot dogs for $2 and soda and beer for a buck apiece.
FINISH LINES: With rain forecast for Monday, there were 347 recorded workouts at Sunday, 36 on the training track . . . Santa Anita will be dark for live racing Thursday, Jan. 2, but resume live racing Friday, Jan. 3 at 1 p.m. . . . Saturday’s opening day all sources pari-mutuel handle of $19,021,102 was the second-highest in Santa Anita history.
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