December 25, 2020 —
If Saturday’s anticipated speed duel between Charlatan and Nashville in the Grade I Malibu Stakes doesn’t get the ol’ motors revved up, well, better bring your car in for its scheduled maintenance.
The Malibu, which has been won by such racing royalty as Ferdinand (1986), Precisionist (1984), Spectacular Bid (1980) and Ancient Title (1974) over the past 50 years, is no doubt the headliner on Santa Anita’s opening-day card that includes two other Grade I stakes races and a pair of Grade IIs.
Fans will have to watch the action on television, though, because unless you recently took out a jockey, trainer, or owner’s license, you’re not allowed inside the track for the beginning of its 84th winter-spring meet because of COVID-19.
Besides the Malibu, two Grade I races for 3-year-old fillies — the La Brea Stakes at the Malibu’s distance of 7 furlongs and the American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles over Santa Anita’s prestine turf course — will be run.
Toss in the two Grade II events — the San Antonio Stakes for 3-year-olds and older and the Mathis Brothers Mile for 3-year-olds on the lawn — and Saturday is one of the top three days of the meet, along with Big ‘Cap and Santa Anita Derby days.
But let’s examine the Malibu first.
In one corner, you’ve got Charlatan, whose only loss in three tries was a disqualification because of a drug violation after winning a division of the Arkansas Derby by six lengths on May 2.
In the other corner, you’ve got Nashville, who’s untested in a graded stakes, but who has won his three races by a combined 24 3/4 lengths. His trainer, Steve Asmussen, didn’t ship his colt out to California for a jog on the beach.
They’re both by Speightstown, a pretty talented sprinter in his own right. He won the 2004 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, was named the nation’s top sprinter that year and tied the record for the fastest 6 furlongs at Saratoga.
Charlatan and Nashville both own triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures, and both have carved out lightning-quick fractions on the front end. Saturday should be no different, but Santa Anita’s main track is deep and if they engage in a speed duel, maybe Collusion Illusion or Independence Hall come rolling home late to nail ’em at the wire.
“Charlatan has never faced a horse like Nashville, but Nashville has never faced a horse like Charlatan,” Bob Baffert, Charlatan’s trainer, told Danny Brewer of horseracingscoop.com.
Another intriguing race is the San Antonio, which has attracted the likes of Sharp Samurai, Midcourt, Extra Hope and the comebacking 2-1 morning-line favorite Mucho Gusto, the latter of whom hasn’t raced since finishing fourth in the inaugural Saudi Cup on Feb. 29.
With the likes of Authentic and Maximum Security retired and enjoying life on the breeding farm, the local older division is up for grabs. We might get a look at an early contender for the title of top dog in this 1 1/16-mile test on the main track.
Sharp Samurai, the 5-2 second choice on Jon White’s morning line, has proved recently he’s more than just a turf standout. He finished second in this past summer’s Pacific Classic behind Maximum Security at Del Mar and two races later finished a credible third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland.
Many top Eastern trainers elected to ship horses west for Saturday’s stakes races, including Asmussen, Chad Brown, Michael Maker and Graham Motion. They’ll join a jockey colony that is loaded this winter.
Joel Rosario will repeat his recent practice of riding at Santa Anita until the start of the Keeneland meet (April 1), joining local stalwarts Flavien Prat, Umberto Rispoli, Mike Smith, Abel Cedillo, Drayden Van Dyke, Juan Hernandez, Ricardo Gonzalez, Victor Espinoza and Tyler Baze.
Toss in other veterans the likes of Tiago Pereira, Mario Gutierrez, Edwin Maldonado and Geovanni Franco and a pair of talented apprentices, Jessica Pyfer and Alexis Centeno, and Southern California boasts one of the deepest jockey pools in the nation.
It all starts with a first post of 11 a.m. on Saturday.