Santa Anita Park’s opening day marks the return of this year’s Pegasus World Cup champion for the first time in 10 months. And poor Mucho Gusto; he’s not remotely the headline attraction.
For that, he can thank Nashville, Charlatan, and Independence Hall, who all smashed and grabbed Mucho Gusto’s spotlight on what is a star-stacked opening day Saturday.
Santa Anita’s traditional day-after-Christmas opening features five stakes races. Three of those are Grade 1s. First among equals is the seven-furlong Malibu Stakes, which marks the return of Bob Baffert’s Charlatan from ankle surgery. That’s one of the numerous storylines surrounding the nation’s best race this weekend.
The two other Grade 1s are the seven-furlong La Brea Stakes and the 1-¼-mile American Oaks. Both are for 3-year old fillies, and both feature fields loaded with stakes winners and stakes placers.
Even the Grade 2s Carry Weight, Names
Not that the two other graded stakes races are lacking. There’s the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes and the Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile. Both offer recognizable names – including Mucho Gusto in the San Antonio Stakes.
While most eyes will be on Southern California, Gulfstream Park’s Saturday card offers up three turf races, including a notable one with a familiar name.
OG takes a closer look at each race.
Malibu Stakes, Santa Anita
This 3-year-old sprint has everything. You’ve got Charlatan, making his first start since finishing first at the Arkansas Derby in May. You’ve got Steve Asmussen’s undefeated Nashville, who destroyed the Keeneland six-furlong track record in his last time out for his third consecutive victory. You’ve got Charlatan’s stablemate, Thousand Words, last seen finishing eighth in the Preakness. And there’s Independence Hall, taking the next step in his comeback after winning an allowance at Del Mar. No wonder this race sucks all the oxygen out of the sport this weekend.
La Brea Stakes, Santa Anita
The distaff version of the Malibu features another Asmussen-Baffert duel. This one sends Asmussen’s seven-time winner Finite against Baffert’s Merneith, winner of her last two. Finite seeks her fourth graded stakes victory after winning the Grade 3 Chilukki at Churchill Downs in her last outing. Baffert counters with flood-the-zone numbers. He brings four fillies in the 11-horse field: Merneith, Himiko, Provocation, and Golden Principal. Don’t forget Mike McCarthy’s Stellar Sound in a race where six of the 11 fillies come in off a victory.
American Oaks, Santa Anita
This is a Grade 1 10-furlong turf race, which explains why grass maestro Chad Brown sends Duopoly – winner of three out of her last four races – and Capital Structure west. Waiting for them are the dynamic Sharing and Beguiled, who comes in off winning a Del Mar allowance. That was her first victory since January. As for Sharing, she comes back off a gritty fourth in the Grade 1 Matriarch on Del Mar’s closing weekend.
San Antonio Stakes, Santa Anita
Welcome back, Mucho Gusto. We missed you since your hard-fought fourth in the Saudi Cup back in late February. Baffert sends the defending Pegasus champion to this 1-1/16-mile contest as a prep for his Pegasus defense next month. The ubiquitous Sharp Samurai awaits after finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. So does Extra Hope and Midcourt, who went 1-2 in the Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar.
Mathis Brothers Mile, Santa Anita
Give Storm the Court and his connections credit for perseverance. He’s back on turf again, seeking his first graded stakes victory since winning the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. We last saw him finishing a distant seventh at the Hollywood Derby at Del Mar. That’s also where we last saw Smooth Like Strait, who finished second in that race. He and Ontario Derby winner Field Pass should figure prominently in this 3-year-old race.
Tropical Park Derby, Gulfstream Park
Speaking of turf returns, say hello again to Sole Volante, making his return to turf for the first time since winning the Pulpit Stakes in his second career start. That was 13 months ago. Last seen finishing a distant 11th in the Kentucky Derby 3-½ months ago, the turf-bred Sole Volante seeks to follow in the hoofprints of Halladay. He won this race en route to winning a Grade 1.