The hillside turf course at Santa Anita
The most famous day in horse racing is the first Saturday in May, when the Kentucky Derby is run at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky. But for many fans and horseplayers, especially those on the West Coast, the day after Christmas has the same kind of cachet. That’s when Santa Anita raises the curtain on what the Arcadia, Calif., track is now calling the Classic Meet.
The winter season starts with a bang on Monday. First post for the 11-race card is 11 a.m. PT. There are giveaways and promotions for the early arrivals. plus six graded stakes, three of them Grade 1, for those who like watching the best horses and riders compete.
Speaking of riders, the jockey colony will include a newcomer that racing fans may have heard of: Lanfranco “Frankie” Dettori. The 52-year-old riding legend from Milan, Italy, recently announced that 2023 will be his final year in the saddle, and his farewell tour to the sport will begin with a 10-week stay at Santa Anita, where I’m sure he hopes to pick up a potential mount in the Kentucky Derby, a race he has not won. His season will go full circle. He plans to ride off into the sunset after the Breeders’ Cup, to be held at Santa Anita this Nov. 3-4.
Hall of Famer John Velazquez is back for another winter in Arcadia, and Kazushi Kimura, who ran away with the 2022 riding title at Woodbine in Canada, is hoping to make his mark in Southern California. Opening day has attracted Eclipse Award winner Joel Rosario and up-and-coming star Tyler Gaffalione from the east. They join Flavien Prat, who is back in California for the winter after deciding to move his business to New York in the spring and summer. The regular colony includes Hall of Famer Mike Smith, 2022 leading rider Juan Hernandez, and Ramon Vazquez, who is riding more than his share of winners since arriving from the Midwest last spring.
The most meaningful of opening day’s three Grade 1 races will be the Runhappy Malibu Stakes, where Zedan Racing Stables’ Taiba will try for his third G1 win of the year and strengthen his claim to be voted an Eclipse Award in the competitive 3-year-old male division.The colt by Gun Runner is the 6-5 morning line favorite in the race first run in 1952 and won by the likes of Native Diver, Buckpasser, Damascus, Ancient Title, Spectacular Bid, Ferdinand, Shared Belief and the race sponsor, Runhappy.
Taiba is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who has won the Malibu in two of the last four years and four times overall. But there’s another trainer with a Malibu entrant who has won this race a total of six times: Richard Mandella, who saddles Forbidden Kingdom, the 3-1 second choice on the morning line.
The stakes action kicks off in the first race, the G2 Mathis Mile on the turf, with seven 3-year-olds going postward. The day ends with another G1, the American Oaks, which has drawn a field of 11 3-year-old fillies racing a mile and a quarter on the grass course. The G2 San Gabriel features turf veterans 3-year-olds and up going 1 1/8 miles, the G2 San Antonio is for dirt runners going 1 1/16 miles, and the G1 La Brea is the counterpart to the Malibu, with 3-year-old fillies racing seven furlongs.
There are no Kentucky Derby preps on the card, unless you count the maiden race for 2-year-olds that goes as the fourth event on the card. Bob Baffert, who is loaded with promising juveniles, has a trio entered in this race, led by Faustin, a Curlin colt racing for Michael Lund Petersen and the morning line favorite.
Santa Anita will roll out the best weather in the country for opening day, with temperatures expected to reach the low 80s.