Santa Anita season off to a good start

Hard Not to Love and Mike Smith win the Grade I, $300,000 La Brea Stakes horse race Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.
Hard Not to Love and Mike Smith win the Grade I, $300,000 La Brea Stakes horse race Saturday, Dec. 28, 2019, at Santa Anita in Arcadia, Calif.

Should the racing gods ever decree that the consummate book be written on the glory that is Santa Anita Park, the final chapter is poised for history.

It was written December 28, when everything that makes Santa Anita great was in full flower, frenetic yet tranquil, in all its natural splendour. Scenic mountains, verdant palms, azure skies, and a balmy breeze as 35,088 devotees basked under a warm winter sun.

Dominant victories by Gift Box and Omaha Beach , dramatic photo finishes, a last-to-first triumph by a one-eyed filly, a scintillating debut victory by Devil Made Me Do It, and a US$110.80 winner to the delight of longshot players were among the track's opening day events.

Oh, and jockey Mike Smith, still vanquishing Father Time at the age of 54, won four races, two of them grade 1 tests to set a record for career grade 1 successes at 217, one more than fellow Hall of Fame member Jerry Bailey.

Ghosts of the past from Seabiscuit to John Henry had plenty to smile about.

"I think yesterday epitomized what Mike is all about," said trainer John Shirreffs, who gave Smith a leg up on Hard Not to Love for her victory in the La Brea Stakes (G1). "He's about the horse, and he's always been about the horse.

"It's the horse first; everything else is secondary. That's what I love about Mike."

Like most, Shirreffs too was smitten with the atmosphere on opening day

After Hard Not to Love won her race, I heard the crowd cheering for her, and that was very reminiscent for me (alluding to his great mare Zenyatta)," Shirreffs continued. "Then when I was walking back to the grandstand, I thought, 'My goodness. Everybody's having a good time. How fun horse racing really is.'

"Santa Anita did a great job. They had these floral arrangements where people could take selfies in front of them, and I saw a lot of people doing that.

"Yesterday was really a celebration."

Omaha Beach, who fulfilled expectations in his final race at Santa Anita Saturday by winning the Runhappy Malibu Stakes (G1), came out of the race in good order and it's on to Gulfstream Park for what will be his final race in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational (G1) January 25. The son of War Front  is scheduled to go to stud after that.

"He came out of the race very good and he'll leave Tuesday, December 31," trainer Richard Mandella said Sunday morning. "We thought he was leaving on the 30th, but it's the 31st.

"We could hear the fans cheering for him, so it seems like he's got a following. Waiting to have opening day on Saturday was a good thing, for the horses and for the public."

Meanwhile, Santa Anita will be left with fond memories of Omaha Beach and what more he might have accomplished had he continued to race. "It's too bad we're losing him," said trainer David Bernstein, in his 45th year at Santa Anita who conditioned 1994 Eclipse Award winner as champion older male The Wicked North. "We haven't seen the best of him."

Victor Espinoza was happy to pick up the mount on 3-5 favourite Bellafina in the La Brea, but he was understandably disappointed she finished second to 11-1 shot Hard Not to Love, who rallied from ninth and last at the half-mile marker to win by 2 1/4 lengths.

"The race didn't set up as good for her as we would have liked," Espinoza said Sunday. "She was pressured by Baffert's filly (Mother Mother), but she still ran very well."

It was the first time a jockey other than Flavien Prat had ridden Bellafina in her 13 career starts, so trainer Simon Callaghan had reason to offer Espinoza some pre-race prose.

"He said try to break out the gate clear and see how the race sets up," Espinoza said. "It was good but we never had a chance to relax on the lead (with rapid fractions of :21.70, :44.41 and 1:09.31. The final time for seven furlongs was 1:22.17).

"That made it hard for her, but she ran an awesome race."




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