Thoughts and Observations on Santa Anita's Opening Weekend

This was what California racing needed.

The first two days of Santa Anita had it all. World class racing, popular horses winning, history being made. That was just some of what we witnessed as the Great Race Place begins its 83rd season while embarking on a brand new decade.

Make no mistake, there were equal amounts of excitement and trepidation going into Saturday. After what has been the worst year in the history of California racing, there was an understandable aura of nervousness as a new season began.

And while the nerves are still there, the meet got off to a tremendous start filled with plenty of positives and notable stories over the first two days. Some of those are going to be discussed here. So, without any more delay, here is the weekend that was at Santa Anita!

-The best news of opening weekend? No race day incidents. Let's keep it going.

-John Shirreffs is absolutely right when he talked to Santa Anita's Ed Golden recently, calling Opening Day a celebration. It really was, and both fans and the whole circuit are clearly ready turn the page and seek a positive 2020.

-Attendance and handle were down, but considering everything the track went through this year, and that overall handle was still the second highest in Santa Anita's history, Saturday was a great day.

-The meet is still young, but we could see quite a battle for the riding title. Going in, it is safe to say that Flavien Prat and Joel Rosario were expected to contend for the Golden Whip, but do not count out Abel Cedillo, who made his intentions known with his four win day on Sunday.

-Speaking of Rosario, be careful to rule him out of your tickets. He gets the job done on favorites and horses at bigger odds, and that was evident this weekend. His average win payout? $8.26. That comes out to odds of roughly 3-1.

-Becoming the all-time leader in Grade I victories is a towering achievement, and it also makes one wonder what Mike Smith can do going forward. Not sure of how much longer Big Money Mike plans to ride, but he could make his new record at least close to untouchable in the coming years.

-Going to echo what more than one person has said. Omaha Beach will be missed, and the thought of what he could do at 4 is very exciting if he were not going to stud.

-It is always a pleasure to see Richard Mandella saddle a winner. A true horseman and a true gentleman.

-Hard Not to Love gave a memorable rally in the La Brea, and she has that underdog quality about her, racing with only one eye (she was born without a left eye). She is a tremendous story, and here's wishing her more success.

-It was really fitting that Mike Smith equaled Jerry Bailey's record for Grade I wins aboard Hard Not to Love. The reason? John Shirreffs. They teamed up to win the 2005 Kentucky Derby aboard Giacomo and won a plethora of stakes together with Zenyatta. The jockey and trainer have had so many memories together, and now they have another in what is a major milestone for Smith.

-Lost in the shuffle of Omaha Beach and Hard Not to Love's wins was Mirth's triumph in the Robert J. Frankel Stakes. If you want to see a game finish, look no further.

-Victor Espinoza has a point about Bellafina's second place in the La Brea. She was part of a quick pace and coming off a layoff of close to two months, and still ran well. Perhaps a fine 2020 campaign is in her future.

-While on the subject of Bellafina, she is a true example of a horse-for-course. She loves Santa Anita, having been first or second in every start over the main surface thus far in her career. And she is a classy filly.

-History can be made on any given day at a racetrack. We saw it with Mike Smith, and we saw it with Gift Box. Winning two editions of the San Antonio is rare, but the reigning Big 'Cap champion did it. He has his place in Santa Anita (and California racing) history, and that can grow if he repeats in the Big 'Cap in 2020.

-Really curious to see what Devil Made Me DoIt does in 2020 following that 9 1/2 length debut win on Opening Day. He might have a big year.

-The same goes for Venetian Harbor, who won Sunday's seventh race by 10 3/4 lengths. She has both sprinting and distance in her pedigree. There is also some turf pedigree on the dam's side. Perhaps she will become a versatile horse as her career progresses?

-Though this race will not be until January 1st, it is great to see that the Joe Hernandez Stakes has been promoted to a Grade II event. Hernandez is the original Voice of Santa Anita, and he not only deserves a stake named after him, but it should be graded as well.

-The Early Pick 5 is an exciting wager when you get middle-priced horses or longshots in the win column. Just look at the payouts from the last two days. Combine that with low takeout and it is one of the best bets in racing, if not the best.

-It was talked about in some news and notes that Richard Baltas brought several horses to the opening day program. He now has two wins in as many days. Could he follow his Del Mar success with the training title in Arcadia. He is a good trainer, and this just might be his season to do it.

-Before the Eddie Logan victory, Encoder won the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes, which is also listed. Not sure what happened in the Zuma Beach (Encoder finished fourth in that one), but perhaps this kind of class level, meaning minor stakes, is where Encoder can do his best stuff.

-Farewell, Gary Sherlock. You will be missed.

It was a weekend to remember. Let's hope for good things in 2020!

Published by Support California Horse Racing, December 31, 2019