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In this April 6, 2019, image provided by Benoit Photo, Bellafina, with Flavien Prat aboard, wins the Grade I, $400,000 Santa Anita Oaks. She returns to racing today in the La Brea Stakes. (Benoit Photo via AP)
In this April 6, 2019, image provided by Benoit Photo, Bellafina, with Flavien Prat aboard, wins the Grade I, $400,000 Santa Anita Oaks. She returns to racing today in the La Brea Stakes. (Benoit Photo via AP)|Associated Press
Thoroughbreds

Santa Anita Opening Day: Chris Garrity breaks down all the stakes races but is avoiding Bellafina and Omaha Beach

First race post time is 2 pm EST.

Chris Garrity

We’re still a few days out from the official holiday on January 1, and the day that all registered racing Thoroughbreds officially become a year older, but in the racing world, the page has already been turned: we’re already into a new year. The start of the Santa Anita meeting, which is usually the day after Christmas but which bad weather moved to today, is the harbinger that the old year is over, and the new year begun. It’s a good day.

And it is especially fitting, as we wait for one year to fade into the next, that we turn the page at Santa Anita. For it was at the venerable racetrack in suburban Los Angeles, that gorgeous Art Deco masterpiece that is arguably the most beautiful sporting venue in all of North America, that the most important racing story of 2019, horses dying on the track, was written, and the future of the sport is probably largely dependent on avoiding another rash of equine fatalities like the one in the first few months of 2019. We will put it bluntly: In terms of mass appeal as a sport, in terms of the public perception of humans enjoying themselves by gathering and watching horses run in circles, the sport may already be doomed, but another grisly Santa Anita meeting will seal the deal, will close the lid on the coffin, as it were. For the sport to have any hope of avoiding going the way of boxing and bullfighting, two sports that were once hugely popular but are now viewed as inhumane and even a bit depraved, Santa Anita will need to be safer than it has ever been before. Let those of us who are fans of the sport save hope that today is the start of a new beginning, and not the beginning of the end. Let's get them all home safe and sound, as the saying goes.

From a racing standpoint, the card at Santa Anita is nothing short of spectacular: there are eleven races and seven stakes, with six of the stakes being graded: three Grade 1s, two Grade 2s, and a Grade 3. It was disappointing when the traditional Boxing Day opener in Arcadia was rained out, but a consequence is a card today that is much, much better than it would have been had they been able to run on Thursday.

There are stakes in other parts of the country, but we are going to restrict our play today to Santa Anita. There’s plenty here to keep us busy, both with win bets and multi-race waters, so we’ll take a stab at both. Here is the lineup of graded stakes races (all times are Eastern):

Race 5, 4:08 pm Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes, 1 1/16 miles, Dirt, 3 & Up

Race 6, 4:44 pm Grade 1 American Oaks, 1 1/4 miles, Turf, 3-year-old Fillies

Race 7, 5:18 pm Grade 1 La Brea Stakes, 7 furlongs, Dirt, 3-year-old Fillies

Race 8, 5:51 pm Grade 3 Robert J. Frankel Stakes, 1 1/8 miles, Turf, Fillies & Mares 3 & Up

Race 9, 6:26 pm Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, 7 furlongs, Dirt, 3-Year-Olds

Race 10 , 7:00 pm Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile, 1 mile, Turf, 3-year-olds

We will break down each of these races individually, and list our plays at the end. We will note that we expect fast dirt and firm turf at Santa Anita today.

San Antonio Stakes

The San Antonio drew seven entrants. We think 9/5 morning line favorite 2-Gift Box is a strong pick. He is coming off a layoff, having last run at Churchill Downs in June, but his best looks to be a cut better than the rest (and several cuts better than a couple of them). He’s been working very strongly for this return, with a couple of very fast recent morning drills, and trainer John Sadler is good off layoffs, with a 24% win rate with horses who last races more than six months ago. We expect Gift Box to be somewhere around even money, so we don’t see him offering much value in the win pool, but we will use him as a single in multi-race exotics.

American Oaks

We like 5-Lady Prancelot in the American Oaks, and we like her quite a bit. This Irish-bred filly has never run 10 furlongs before, but both her pedigree and her late running style suggest she should take to it like a duck takes to water. We also expect the shape of the race to favor her: there's an abundance of speed, and an abundance of fillies who have never run this far: that should add up to an unsustainably fast pace, the front-runners collapsing, and horses coming from far back to pick up the pieces. Lady Prancelot is by far the strongest of the come-from-behinders, and she is our pick on top. We will play her to win at 2-1, we will single her in our multi-race bets, and we will also key on top in the trifecta, with two late-running long shots, 4-K P Slickem and 6-Pretty Point, underneath. Look for them all to be flying late.

La Brea Stakes

5-Bellafina is the 9/5 favorite in the La Brea, primarily due to her strong runner-up finish to Covfefe in the Breeders Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. That was a superb race, and a repeat of that effort would leave this field in the dust.

We do not expect a repeat; we expect a regression. History is littered with horses who have lost, frequently at miserly odds, their first start after the Breeders Cup, and Bellafina looks like this type to us. She may win, but at a short price, we are betting against her.

We like 1-First Star, who starts for trainer Ron Ellis, and who will be ridden by Drayden Van Dyke. She has some early speed, she finishes her races strongly, she has been breathing fire in her morning workouts, and being lightly raced, with only three career starts, she probably still has a bit of room for improvement. She will have to negotiate a tough spot -- the 1 hole in one-turn sprints blows -- but we think she has the ability to do it, and at 4-1, we think she offers value. We will bet her to win at 4-1. For multi-race bets, we will be spreading wide.

Robert J. Frankel Stakes

It is nice that there's a stakes race named after the late Bobby Frankel, and it's nicer that it's a turf race around two turns. Frankel was good at training all kinds of horses, but he was probably best with turf runners.

We will be honest here: we have no idea who is going to win this race. The field of eight is very, very evenly matched, which is reflected in the odds: seven of the runners are between 5/2 and 6-1. We will use them all in multi-race wagers, which probably makes whoever goes off as the favorite a lead-pipe cinch.

Malibu Stakes

The traditional opening day feature at Santa Anita, the Malibu has a long and rich history, but the field this year came up short, with just five runners. This is a race to watch, not bet: 5-Omaha Beach will probably win by a comfortable margin, with East Coast shipper 2-Complexity, who earned a big speed figure in an allowance race at Aqueduct last month, likely to finish second. The other three look like non-contenders to us. We have no desire to bet Omaha Beach at 2/5, nor any desire to bet on a miserly exacta, so we will watch this one, but pass on betting it.

Mathis Brothers Mile

The Mathis Brothers is another stakes restricted to 3-year-olds, and 9/5 morning line favorite 5-Mo Forza, has very solid credentials: he's won three in a row, all on grass, with two the last two stakes at Del Mar and Santa Anita. He looks tough on form, but we are taking a stab a a long shot who should be well behind early, but who should be moving late: it's 8-Proud Pedro, who's trained by Leonard Powell and who's 15-1 on the morning line. He needs a hot pace to run at, but we think he may get that today, as there's a lot of speed in the race. We also like the fact that a mile on turf seems to be his best distance: he's run it five times, and hit the board in four of them. We'll hope for a hot pace, and for Proud Pedro to pick up the pieces; we'll bet him to win at 15-1.

Here are the win bets:

Santa Anita, Race 6 (American Oaks), $35 to win on 5-Lady Prancelot

Santa Anita, Race 7 (La Brea Stakes), $30 to win on 1-First Star

Santa Anita, Race 10 (Mathis Brothers MIle), $20 to win on 8-Proud Pedro

Santa Anita is carding six stakes races in a row, but for whatever reason, there is no Pick 4 or Pick 5 sequence that is comprised entirely of stakes races. This makes no sense, but we will pass on both, and instead play the rolling Pick 3s, which are offered on every race in the sequence. We'll use our main contenders/top picks in the first leg, and the logical contenders in the other two legs.

Here are the Pick 3 tickets:

Santa Anita, Race 5, $1 Pick 3: 2 with 5 with 1,5,6,9 ($4 ticket)

Santa Anita, Race 6, $1 Pick 3: 5 with 1,5,6,9 with ALL ($24 ticket)

Santa Anita, Race 7, $1 Pick 3: 1 with ALL with 5 ($8 ticket)

Santa Anita, Race 8, $1 Pick 3: ALL with 5 with 5,8 ($16 ticket)

That's a total of $85 in win bets, and $52 in wagers in the Pick 3.

That's all for today. Enjoy the racing, and, as always, good luck at the windows.

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