May 18, 2024

Santa Anita opens its fall meeting Friday with higher than normal anticipation because it closes with the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3-4. What that means is a mad dash to get in as many big races as possible in the first two weekends of its 19-day meeting. This gives the horses enough time to recover and run in the million-dollar races the first weekend of November that signal the unofficial end of the racing year.

There are nine stakes this weekend, including the Grade 1 $300,000 Awesome Again race Saturday that features Preakness Stakes winner National Treasure among a field of nine.

Next weekend there are six stakes over three days that end Monday, with three races in which the winners automatically are entered, all expenses paid, into a Breeders’ Cup race. Of course, when you are racing at this year’s Breeders Cup track, the expenses for the sanctioning group are a whole lot less.

Awesome Again, also a win-and-you’re-in race for the Breeders’ Cup, is the most intriguing of this weekend. It grew less interesting Wednesday when trainer Tim Yakteen decided not to enter Practical Move, winner of this year’s Santa Anita Derby. The colt was all set to be one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby but spiked a fever two days before the race and was scratched. He hasn’t run since.

The entering of National Treasure was a mild surprise, but trainer Bob Baffert has been liking what he’s seen of the 3-year-old colt since he returned to Santa Anita.

“I liked the way he breezed last week,” Baffert said. “The Travers [fifth-place finish] was sort of a disaster. But I’m putting the blinkers back on. He just doesn’t get into the race without it. You have to just draw a line through the Travers.”

Horses wear blinkers around their eyes to focus their attention on what’s in front of them. National Treasure won the Preakness with blinkers.

The Awesome Again is a 1-1/8-mile race, one-sixteenth of a mile shorter than the Preakness, which he won in front-running style under a masterful ride by John Velazquez. Juan Hernandez, who has been Baffert’s main jockey of late with Velazquez riding at the Belmont at Aqueduct meeting, will get off Baffert’s other horse Defunded to ride National Treasure.

The morning line disagrees with Hernandez’s decision to move to the Preakness winner, making him the 4-1 third choice. Defunded is the 2-1 favorite.

Defunded is no slouch, having won this race last year. He was underwhelming in his last two races at Del Mar, a fourth in the San Diego Handicap as the odds-on favorite, and sixth in the Pacific Classic.

The 5-year-old gelding has been pretty good at Santa Anita, though, winning four of six starts at the track. The other two races were a second and third.

“He always runs his best races at Santa Anita,” Baffert said. “He never looked comfortable at Del Mar. He’s just a horse for the course down here. He’s worked well here. We’ll see if he runs his race.”

Edwin Maldonado returns to ride Defunded, which he did last year when they won the Awesome Again. The 40-year-old Puerto Rico native finally is starting to get better mounts as he keeps winning. Last year’s Awesome Again was his first Grade 1 win. Last Saturday, he won his first $1-million race, the Grade 1 Cotillion at Parx near Philadelphia, riding Ceiling Crusher over a very sloppy track. The 3-year-old filly is based in Southern California for trainer Doug O’Neill.

Awesome Again has a pretty good field that includes Senor Buscador (5-1 odds), winner of the San Diego Handicap; Slow Down Andy (5-2), who always seems to be near the top in tough graded stakes; Skinner (8-1), who was getting a lot of buzz before scratching out of the Kentucky Derby the day before the race; and Stilleto Boy (6-1), winner of the Santa Anita Handicap but who didn’t finish in the Pacific Classic.

Senor Buscador gallops on the track during a training run before the 2022 Breeders' Cup.

Senor Buscador gallops on the track during a training run before the 2022 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Ky.

(Horsephotos / Getty Images)

Another interesting set of matchups Saturday is in the six-furlong Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Dr. Schivel, who lost the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Sprint by a nose, won his last race at Santa Anita easily in May. He then finished fifth in the Met Mile at Belmont and third in the Bing Crosby at Del Mar. He is the 9-5 morning-line favorite.

The 5-year-old had to overcome a 10-month layoff after suffering bone bruising when he ran in the Golden Shaheen in Dubai. His Santa Anita win was his comeback race.

Baffert has three contenders in the nine-horse field. Most notable among them is Arabian Lion (5-2), who recently won the Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico and the Woody Stephens at Belmont. Baffert also has Fort Bragg (6-1), winner of the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs and the Dwyer at Belmont, and Speed Boat Beach (12-1), a bit of a mystery in that his last three races were on the turf and his last race was in December, a win in the Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar.

Hernandez will ride Dr. Schivel and Maldonado will handle Arabian Lion.

There are two other graded stakes Saturday: the Grade 2 $200,000 Eddie D Stakes, which is 6½ furlongs down the downhill turf course and named for legendary jockey Eddie Delahoussaye, and the Grade 2 $200,000 City of Hope Stakes for horses going a mile on the turf.

Friday’s opening day has the Grade 3 $100,000 Chillingworth Stakes for fillies and mares going 6½ furlongs on the dirt. Eda is the 4-5 morning-line favorite for the Baffert-Hernandez combination. She has won eight of 10 races despite a 13-month layoff from 2022 to this year.

Sunday’s card has three graded stakes.

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