Santa Anita opened its marathon six-month winter/spring season by showcasing a star of the future while highlighting the dominance of a familiar trainer-jockey combination.
There were six graded stakes, three of them Grade 1, but the three turf stakes were taken off the grass and put on the dirt because of all the rain the last few days.
Easily, the most breathtaking performance was by Flightline in winning the Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes. The lightly raced 3-year-old jumped to the front and never looked back under a hand ride by Flavien Prat, winning by 11 ½ lengths. He has won his three races by a total of 37 ½ lengths.
Trainer John Sadler admits he’s never had a horse do what Flightline has done in three races. It may be understandable in that the colt was a $1 million purchase.
“This is not an ordinary horse,” Sadler said. “This is a very special horse. We want to do right by the horse and all the other things will fall into place.”
Flightline missed the Triple Crown trail having suffered a bad cut on his hind quarters as a 2-year-old when he ran into a fence before he started training with Sadler. He also had a foot bruise at Del Mar that also curtailed his racing schedule.
Sadler didn’t seem interested in guessing where his next race will be, but he will add more distance than the seven furlongs of the Malibu.
“After Flavien got off him the last time, he said this horse can go further,” Sadler said. “He’ll go a distance the next time. There is a lot of pressure on you [when you have such a good horse], but it’s the pressure you want. It’s like being the high school coach for LeBron [James].”
Flightline paid $2.80, $2.40 and $2.20. Baby Yoda was second followed by Stilleto Boy, Triple Tap, Timeless Bounty, Team Merchants and Dr. Shivel.
Prat has been the top rider recently in Southern California but the colony got stronger with the addition of Hall of Famer John Velazquez. He will spend most of his time at Santa Anita but will ride in big races at Oaklawn in Arkansas and Gulfstream in south Florida. He previously rode the winter at Gulfstream.
Velazquez has been a favored rider for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who also uses Prat a lot. Velazquez rode Authentic and Medina Spirit for Baffert to Kentucky Derby wins the last two years, although Medina Spirit’s win is pending a ruling on a medication positive. Medina Spirit was scheduled to run in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Antonio Stakes, which was won by Express Train. But the 3-year-old collapsed and died after a workout, possibly of a heart attack but a final determination will be made by necropsy.
On Sunday, Baffert and Velazquez teamed up to win three races, one of them the Grade 1 $300,000 La Brea Stakes. Their two other wins were in maiden special weights. Velazquez won one more race, an allowance, for trainer Ruben Alvarado.
The La Brea, a seven-furlong race for 3-year-old fillies, was won by Kalypso ($19.60 to win) with a strong stretch drive finishing 4 ¾ lengths in front. It was a case of the “other Baffert” as Prat was riding Private Mission, the favorite who finished sixth.
“I didn’t ask him to come out here, he just wanted to be out here,” Baffert said of Velazquez. “Some guys just click well together and he rides my horses with a lot of confidence. He’s going to ride them the way he sees it.
“So, it takes the pressure off him. Once you get to that level, a lot of trainers just say we’ll see what happens. You can’t blame the rider because you’ve got the best rider on him. It’s because the horse doesn’t show up.”
Trainer Michael McCarthy won two stakes on Sunday. The Grade 2 $300,000 American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies going 1 1/4 miles, which was moved off the turf and won by Queen Goddess ($31.20). She went gate to wire to win by 2 ¾ lengths with Juan Hernandez aboard. And, Law Professor ($10.20), with Jose Ortiz riding, won the Grade 3 $200,000 Santa Anita Mathis Mile, which was also moved off the turf.
The stakes that was hardest hit by the surface change was the Grade 3 $200,000 San Gabriel Stakes, which was 1 1/8 miles for horses 3 and older. There were three scratches leaving just four runners. Bob And Jackie ($12.00) held on to win by a nose for trainer Richard Baltas and jockey Jose Valdivia Jr.