• FLASHBACK SET FOR COMPETITIVE GRADE I MALIBU
• PATRICK VALENZUELA READY TO RESUME HIS CAREER
• McANALLY GOES FROM PONIES TO PIGSKIN SATURDAY
“The Big Meet.”
That’s what any trainer worth his cell phone bill calls the season that gets underway at Santa Anita on Dec. 26.
Santa Anita’s Winter Meet will run through April 20 and will be followed for the first time by a separate Spring Meet, which starts April 25 and concludes June 29. The additional dates were gained through Hollywood Park’s succumbing to the inevitable, closing its doors forever after Sunday, the lush and historic Inglewood site to be razed for real estate development.
Singer/song writer Joni Mitchell nailed it in her 1970 classic, Big Yellow Taxi: “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot.”
But life goes on, and horsemen and fans alike now await what traditionally is California’s “Big Meet,” that starts the day after Christmas and rolls on for 69 racing days.
Some might feel “The Big Meet” is an inadequate term, a slight to one of racing’s greatest venues, both in prestige and ambiance, one that kicks off a New Year filled with hopes and dreams.
But not so Bob Baffert, Doug O’Neill and John Sadler, who combined have captured all but three of Santa Anita’s training titles since the 1994-95 season, Baffert winning a record 11, seven of them in a row from 1996-97 through 2002-03.
“This meet starts the New Year and we look forward to it,” Baffert said. “I don’t look at it as ending the year, but rather kick-starting the new one, even through it starts in December. It’s Christmas every day for us here. There’s nothing like opening day.”
True enough, but short term/long term, The Great Race Place will be in uncharted territory when it runs beyond its traditional late April dates.
“We’ll just have to see how it plays out,” Baffert said. “This meet starts out strong, then it hits a lull, but every year at the end of the meet, it seems to pick up again, like people can’t get enough of it.
“Maybe that will carry on through June, because I’ve always noticed a surge when the weather’s perfect. That’s when people like to come out and enjoy the beauty of Santa Anita, the backdrop, the mountains.
“Plus, there’s been a lot done to improve and enhance the grandstand and other areas for the bettors. There’s a great deal of anticipation, and I think as long as we have the quality of horses, the fans will come out.”
O’Neill’s enthusiasm for opening day is unfettered.
“There’s no better day in California racing than the day after Christmas at Santa Anita,”
said the trainer who saddled the last two upset winners of the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby king I’ll Have Another in 2012 and Goldencents this year.
“It’s a boost to everyone: the owners, the help, the bettors,” O’Neill said. “It’s a real exciting start to the new season. Everyone feels great on opening day at Santa Anita.”
Sadler expressed similar sentiments.
“It is the start of the calendar year, and obviously they have great dates, and
everybody’s looking forward to it,” Sadler said. “We always do, every year.”
Asked about the extension of Santa Anita’s season, Sadler expressed a vested interest, albeit tongue-in-cheek. A Californian through and through, Sadler was born in Long Beach but
now resides in Pasadena, home of the fabled Rose Bowl, only a few furlongs West of
Santa Anita down the 210 Freeway.
“Well, it’s a lot less driving for me,” he said. “They refer to my neighborhood as the Rose
Bowl, so I’ll be spending less time on the freeway. We’re looking forward to that.
“We’ll see how the new calendar does,” Sadler added on a serious note. “I don’t
think anybody knows for sure how it will play out, but we’re going to get ready and go.”
FLASHBACK HEADS BAFFERT TRIO IN MALIBU
Flashback, favored in each of his five career starts, twice at odds-on and never higher than 11-10, figures to be the choice again when he runs in the Grade I Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on opening day.
The gray son of Tapit has not raced since finishing second by a head at 30 cents on the dollar to Zeewat in the Damascus Stakes on Nov. 2. He drew the rail in that race, at seven furlongs, as he did in the mile and an eighth Santa Anita Derby in April, when he finished second to Goldencents.
Winner of the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 2 after winning his debut race last Dec. 8, Flashback worked six furlongs Monday in 1:11.40.
“We’ll have Flashback, Zee Bros and Shakin It Up (entered in the Malibu),” said trainer Bob Baffert, who won the Malibu in 2011 with The Factor. “I’ve got some others that are possible, on the bubble.” Of the 28 Malibu nominations, Baffert has eight.
“Post positions are always very important in the Malibu,” Baffert said. The Factor won from the outside post, 10 of 10, when he captured the Malibu by 3 ½ lengths.
Probable for the Malibu: Bakken, no rider; Central Banker, Joe Talamo; Distinctiv Passion, no rider; Flashback, Joel Rosario; Heir of Storm, Gary Stevens; Holy Lute, Mike Smith; San Onofre, no rider; and Zeewat, Rafael Bejarano.
He’s Had Enough will not run. The gray son of Tapit “has a little ankle issue” and has been sent to Sunshine Farm in Bradbury, trainer Doug O’Neill said.
There will be a double draw on Saturday, when entries for opening day, Thursday, Dec. 26, and Friday, Dec. 27, will be taken.
HEALTHY P. VAL BREATHING EASIER AS SANTA ANITA OPENS
P. Val’s back and Santa Anita has him.
The 51-year-old jockey--full handle, Patrick Valenzuela--resumes riding at The Great Race Place when it opens on Dec. 26. A fixture in Southern California since he began his career in 1978,
Valenzuela has made more comebacks than Brett Favre, overcoming numerous injuries and substance abuse issues, but has never lost his zeal for the game.
His ability on horseback has never been questioned.
“I’ve been out here working every morning, just getting ready for the Big Meet,” said Valenzuela, exhibiting the same unbridled enthusiasm that has become his signature trait.
“I’ve got some good calls and hopefully we’ll get lucky and get a couple winners right away and get rolling.” Agent Tom Knust represents Valenzuela.
Valenzuela, the youngest jockey ever to win a Santa Anita Derby at 17 aboard Codex for D. Wayne Lukas in 1980, has not ridden competitively since Oct. 11. He was winless in 12 rides at Santa Anita’s Autumn meet.
“I got sick during the fall meet here and I lost a lot of weight,” said Valenzuela, whose most memorable victory came aboard 1989 Horse of the Year Sunday Silence in that year’s Kentucky Derby. “My immune system was down and I got a pretty bad sinus infection.
“I went to the doctor and had to take a couple days off. It came at the wrong time, but I decided to give it more time and get healthy the right way.
“My weight’s good. I’ll probably be doing 18 (tacking 118 pounds) opening day and hopefully continue doing that for the rest of my career.”
Among Valenzuela’s 13 riding titles is the 2002-03 crown at Santa Anita, where he won 94 races, outdistancing runner-up David Flores, who won 69.
Although he’s won only four races this year according to Equibase statistics, Valenzuela has 4,346 career wins, with purse earnings of $165,266,242.
HALL OF FAMER MCANALLY HAS PIGSKIN CONNECTION AT STUBHUB CENTER
Hall of Fame conditioner Ron McAnally, readily associated with the likes of John Henry, Bayokoa, Paseana, Candy Ride and many other luminaries of the American Turf, also has a more than passive interest in high school football, as in California Division II, State Final Football, this Saturday night at StubHub Center in Carson.
“My daughter, Laura, is married to Aron Gideon, who’s an assistant coach at Chaminade Prep School in West Hills,” said McAnally, who currently ranks as Santa Anita’s third all-time winningest trainer with 701 victories, behind only Bobby Frankel and Charlie Whittingham. “The team plays Enterprise High this Saturday at 4 p.m. and we’re really looking forward to going down there to support them.”
Gideon, who has coached previously at UCLA, St. Mary’s College and Cal State Northridge, played football at UCLA as a walk-on and graduated a Bruin in 1993. He currently serves as Chaminade’s (College Prep School) Special Teams Coordinator and Tight Ends Coach.
“My dad is really excited about this and he’s got my kids’ Godfather, Ross Porter, and his wife, coming down with all of us to the game,” said McAnally’s daughter, Laura. “We wish Ross was doing the play by play, but it’ll be so much fun having him with us. This is like getting ready to run in the Santa Anita Handicap!”
McAnally, 81, knows a thing or two about the Big ‘Cap, having won it in back-to-back years with John Henry in 1981 and ’82, and with Mr. Purple in 1996.
As he looked ahead Tuesday morning with a discerning eye to opening day Dec. 26 and beyond, McAnally simply stated, “All I need is the horse.”
FINISH LINES: Multiple Grade I winner Executiveprivilege worked five furlongs on Santa Anita’s fast main track Wednesday in 1:00.80 as the Bob Baffert trainee prepared for the Grade I La Brea Stakes at seven furlongs on opening day. Also working for the La Brea was Lighthouse Bay, who went five furlongs in 1:00.20 under Mike Smith for trainer George Weaver . . . Trainer Chad Brown has supplemented game Belmont allowance turf winner Hamnet to the Grade II Sir Beaufort Stakes opening day at a cost of $4,000 . . . Trainer Jeff Mullins is a staunch proponent of Tyler Baze. The 31-year-old rider is nearing his return from a lengthy suspension for violation of alcohol abuse. “It’s like he never left,” Mullins said, addressing Baze’s skill in the saddle. “I think he’s getting plenty of support. He’s working nine or 10 head a day. He’s working horses on the training track and everything . . . I think he’s got a pretty strong fan base.” Baze has been cleared to resume riding on Jan. 1, and will be represented by agent Craig O’Bryan. . . One of Santa Anita’s many rich traditions will unfold Jan. 4 when the popular Budweiser Clydesdales will perform on track . . .Teddy’s Promise is scheduled to make her final career start in the Grade II, $200,000 Santa Monica Stakes at Santa Anita on Jan. 25 before being bred to Smart Strike. The 5-year-old Salt Lake mare owned and bred by in California by Ted and Judy Nichols and trained by Ron Ellis won the Playa del Rey Stakes at Hollywood Park on Dec. 15. A winner of 11 of 28 starts, Teddy’s Promise has earned $882,397 . . . Agent Dudley Osborne hopes to make an impact this meet representing jockeys Orlando Mojica and Julien Couton, the latter a 31-year-old Frenchman who has been riding for 10 years, and in the U.S. since 2007, first for trainer Patrick Biancone and more recently for Leonard Powell, both fellow Frenchman. “It’s a tough circuit and you have to take advantage of all opportunities,” Osborne said. “Julien has the ability. It’s a matter of getting the chance, but we’re getting there.” Mojica also is taking an optimistic approach. “You have to ride the right horses for the right people,” said the personable 31-year-old from Puerto Rico. “I’ve been riding for 14 years and enjoyed success in Kentucky and at Indiana Downs before coming to Southern California. I’m working hard and doing the best I can.” . . . Former top agent Ron Ebanks was a pre-holiday visitor to Santa Anita, pitching peat moss horse bedding to prospective clients. Already on board are trainers such as Steve Asmussen, Wayne Catalano, Carla Gaines, Richard Mandella, Mike Mitchell, John Shirreffs, Michael Stidham and Wesley Ward. “The new products are Ebee’s Organic Bedding and Savesorb.com,” Ebanks said of his launching endeavor. “It’s Hypoallergenic and it helps bleeders and horses with allergies.”