Espinoza off to nice start at Santa Anita

Victor Espinoza, who’s won six Southern California riding titles but none since the 2006-07 Santa Anita meet when he tied Garrett Gomez for the crown, is out of the gate quickly after the first three days of Santa Anita’s 75th anniversary season.

Espinoza, a 37-year-old native of Mexico City, has five victories through the first three days of the 83-day meet, tied for the top spot with Rafael Bejarano, who is trying to become the first jockey since Laffit Pincay Jr. in 1979-81 to win three consecutive Santa Anita riding titles.

Espinoza had a riding triple on opening day, including a victory in the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes aboard The Usual Q.T., and has three stakes victories already. He rode Macias to victory in the $72,150 Eddie Logan Stakes on Monday after scoring aboard Evening Jewel in the $100,000 California Breeders’ Champion Stakes for juvenile fillies on Sunday.

“I’ve been working really hard to get my business together for this meet and it’s great to get off to a good start like this on opening day,” Espinoza said after his victory aboard The Usual Q.T.

Espinoza is a solid rider who sometimes gets lost in a SoCal jockey colony that is the toughest in the nation, what with Bejarano, Gomez and Joel Rosario riding here regularly and other young riders like Joe Talamo, Tyler Baze and Martin Garcia also in the mix. Toss in veterans like Mike Smith, Alex Solis and Martin Pedroza, and you get the picture about the quality of the competition these guys face each day.

Talamo, who doesn’t turn 20 until Jan. 12, could turn out to be the best of the bunch.

Espinoza, while not winning a riding title this year, has enjoyed a solid season. He finished in a tie for seventh with Talamo with 42 victories last winter at Santa Anita, was third with 44 wins during Hollywood Park’s spring-summer meet, wound up fifth at Del Mar with 27 victories and finished tied for fifth with Gomez at the Hollypark autumn meet with 14 wins. His worst meet of the year came at Oak Tree, where he wound up ninth.

Good opening day for Great Race Place

There is no doubt the economy is still bad and it’s no secret that thoroughbred racing is in dire straits, particularly in California where a shrinking horse population has led to smaller fields, purse cuts and dwindling on-track attendance.

But the sport got a shot in the arm Saturday when Santa Anita opened its 75th anniversary season with its biggest opening-day crowd since 1999. An on-track turnout of 35,292 was on hand to watch M One Rifle go gate to wire and give trainer Bruce Headley his first victory in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, Evita Argentina turn in a powerful performance to win the Grade 1 La Brea, The Usual Q.T. run his victory streak to six with a win in the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort Stakes and Victor Espinoza start the meet with a riding triple.

In another plus during these rough economic times, overall mutuel handle was up 1 percent Saturday despite the fact a couple of out-of-state betting hubs did not offer wagering on Santa Anita’s 10-race card.

M One Rifle, a California-bred son of One Man Army, won for the fourth time in eight tries, giving Headley his first Grade 1 victory since Street Boss won the 2008 Bing Crosby at Del Mar. The gelding snapped a three-race losing streak that came on the heels of a three-race winning streak.

Headley, never shy about voicing an opinion, took a swipe at the Breeders’ Cup process after the Malibu when asked if he’d considered supplementing M One Rifle to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Nov. 7 rather than running him in the Damascus Stakes earlier on the card.

“The Breeders’ Cup is greedy,” he said. “They’d have made me put $175,000 up, and how can a person put that much up? They charge you too much and then instead of putting it in the pot, they take it and put it in the executives’ pockets.”

Headley said the Malibu victory stacked up with any of his previous career victories except one — the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Sprint that was won by Kona Gold.

“There will never be another Kona Gold,” he said.

Any one of five could win today’s Malibu Stakes

I think today’s $300,000 Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita could be won by any one of five of the 13 horses. Here’s who I like in order of preference:

1. Misremembered
The 3-year-old son of Candy Ride just missed by a neck against 13 older rivals in the Grade 2 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Nov. 27. Victor Espinoza sticks with him and the colt has the tactical speed from the rail to give trainer Bob Baffert his first Malibu victory.

2. Mythical Power
Baffert’s second colt in the race has a big shot off his 7 1/2-length score in the Lone Star Derby on May 9. He’s been off nearly eight months since that victory, but he too has the type of tactical speed that will be dangerous here and he gets the services of Joel Rosario. Baffert wins at a 20 percent clip with horses who’ve been away for six or more months.

3. M One Rifle
This guy lost by only a nose to Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Dancing in Silks in the Cal Cup Sprint and he could be tough in this spot. Trainer Bruce Headley knows his sprinters, and Mike Smith stays aboard. He should be in front early and might prove tough to collar.

4. Papa Clem
The Smart Strike colt hasn’t won since his Arkansas Derby victory on April 11 at Oaklawn Park, but he’s got the talent to win this, having run second to Pioneerof the Nile in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in February. Use him in exotics.

5. Supreme Summit
Finished a strong second to M One Rifle at Del Mar and could flash dangerous early speed in this seven-furlong event. Rafael Bejarano jumps off to stick with the unbeaten Hunch, but Supreme Summit is more seasoned and could be a factor here.

Good luck today!!

Charles latest to sound off against synthetics

Add Santa Anita president Ron Charles to the growing list of horsemen who are not quite as high on synthetic race tracks as when they were first installed.

Two years ago, when Santa Anita ran its first winter-spring meet on Cushion Track, management was forced to cancel a record 11 racing cards when the track did not drain. ly. Just two weeks ago, track officials had to close their Pro-Ride synthetic track for workouts one morning when the surface did not drain properly following about three inches of rain in a 24-hour period.

“I think it’s pretty clear to everyone that they rushed a little bit to change to synthetics,” Charles said on the eve of Santa Anita’s opening day of racing today. “Hindsight being 20-20, they haven’t proved to be what they were advertised to be.

“The biggest problem with the synthetics, certainly here in California and what I’m hearing elsewhere, is the manufacturers really didn’t understand the amount of traffic that would be on the race track. We’re talking 1,500, 1,800 horses hitting it every day, and that’s just something that hadn’t been done before. It’s created a maintenance problem which has created a problem for keeping those tracks consistent.”

For all you synthetic haters out there, keep the faith. I keep hearing from very good sources that traditional dirt surfaces will be back in California sooner rather than later.

When these tracks first went in, it seemed as though 80 percent of the horsemen were in favor of them. Now, it’s almost turned 180 degrees where nearly 80 percent are anti-synthetics.

It was a good day to be Bob Baffert

Trainer Bob Baffert already knew he had one legit Kentucky Derby prospect in his barn before Saturday’s races at Hollywood Park. He was going to saddle Lookin At Lucky, who could easily have carried a 5-0 record into the $750,000 Grade 1 CashCall Futurity and who was sent postward as the 1-5 favorite.

Lookin At Lucky didn’t disappoint, scoring a three-quarter length victory over another Derby hopeful, Noble’s Promise, while displaying the type of early tactical speed that could prove invaluable when 2010 rolls around and the Run for the Roses begins in earnest.

There’s no doubting the fact that Lookin At Lucky, at least so far, is Baffert’s new Pioneerof the Nile, a colt who went into last May’s Kentucky Derby with a big shot to give Baffert his fourth Derby victory and ended up finishing second behind boxcar winner Mine That Bird.

But Baffert had two other 2-year-olds — Tiz Chrome and Clutch Player — who scored impressive four-length victories Saturday to stamp themselves as colts to watch on the early Derby trail on a day when Baffert enjoyed the second four-victory afternoon of his career.

Tiz Chrome, a son of Tiznow ridden by Garrett Gomez, followed up his 3 1/4-length maiden score at Churchill Downs on Nov. 1 with a victory in the $53,500 Stuka Stakes. Unlike in his debut, he showed the ability to rate in the Stuka, which is a vital component for serious Derby contenders. His time in the 6 1/2-furlong test? A scorching 1:14.56.

Clutch Player was making his career debut in Saturday’s seventh race, and the son of Malibu Moon went gate to wire in an ultra-impressive 1:08.91 for the six furlongs under Martin Garcia.

But that’s not all Baffert has in his barn. He’s also got Conveyance, who is coming off a seven-length allowance victory on Nov. 25 at Hollywood Park and will make his 2010 debut sometime in January or February at Santa Anita.

The Program, a $310,000 yearling purchase, is making progress after a last-place finish in his debut at Del Mar on Aug. 22 when Baffert said he acted like “a bucking bronco.” He finished fourth in the Futurity, losing the top prize by only a length and a quarter.

But all eyes were on Lookin At Lucky on Saturday.

“That was probably his best race,” Baffert said after the colt won for the fifth time in six tries. “He’s getting better and better. I wish we’d have had the one post in the Breeders’ Cup.”

Instead, Lookin At Lucky had the outside post in the 13-horse Juvenile field, and it likely cost him the race.

Garrett Gomez likes what he sees of the $475,000 yearling purchase, who was more forwardly placed early on Saturday than in his previous five races and turned in another top-notch effort.

“It always looks like he’s stretched to win, but that’s not the case,” Gomez said of the colt who’s won his five races by a total of only five lengths. “He’s going to learn more as he goes along because he’s got a super mind to him.

“We’ve got to get him to where he puts his competition away and sprints to the wire. He’s full of talent and I’m getting even more excited about him.”

Rafael Bejarano, who rode runner-up Noble’s Promise for the first time, was not deterred by the loss.

“My horse came running to the end, he never quit,” Bejarano said. “The other horse just had a better post and that really helped him. I know I can beat him next time.”

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Bejarano set to take aim at Santa Anita’s record book

Rafael Bejarano, who’s finished no worse than second at any SoCal meet — except for this past Del Mar season when he was injured and missed much of the meet — since he began riding here fulltime in December 2007, will try to become the first jockey since Laffit Pincay Jr. in 1979-81 to win three consecutive Santa Anita jockey titles when the track begins celebrating its 75th anniversary on Dec. 26.

The 27-year-old Bejarano, who credits the late Bobby Frankel for persuading him to come to California and then for putting him on many of his live horses and helping his business, beat Garrett Gomez 99-86 last season after outdistancing the two-time Eclipse Award winner 67-63 in 2007-08.

Only two jockeys — Patrick Valenzuela (2005-06) and Kent Desormeaux (1994-95) — have won back-to-back titles at Santa Anita since Pincay won three consecutive. Pincay also won six consecutive from 1970-75. The all-time Santa Anita record? Bill Shoemaker — who else? — won 17 consecutive riding crowns from 1951-67.

Joel Rosario is on the verge of winning three of the past four SoCal titles, snapping Bejarano’s six-meet streak at Hollywood Park’s spring-summer season and adding the Del Mar championship to his collection before opening an insurmountable 37-26 lead over Bejarano at the current Hollywood Park autum that has only three more days to go. Bejarano edged Rosario by one victory, 31-30, at Oak Tree.

SoCal racing continues to struggle

On a day when Santa Anita had to cancel its morning workouts over the synthetic Pro-Ride surface after it did not drain properly following three inches of rain Saturday (sound familiar?), I received an e-mail from a longtime racing fan. I won’t use his name, but I’d like to publish his thoughts here because I believe they are shared by many other racing fans:

Hi Art,

I am observing the downward spiral of So CA Racing. I looked at today’s program at HOL. The worst ever. Maybe they should just eliminate the Fall HOL meeting. We had 3000 atendance last year now 2000 or less. and very small fields with many hidden entries. I will not bet these fields. Many feel the same way. Now we see $50,000 “stake” races. What nonsense is this?? Allowance race really, non winners in 2009!! Mdn Clm and NW2, 3,4,5,6, year old, Starter races for winners of bad Mdn Clm races are usually non playable. If fans keep losing, they won’t come back. I watch owners come for their race, when it is over , they leave!!! If racing is no fun for them, why should I be there??

Ray Paulick writes this week . Along these lines.

At Santa Anita, many times I can count less than 100 people visible from Mezz. They report 3000.

What we need is real leadership in Horse Racing. Remember Harness Racing demonstrated leadership many years ago.

Not much is written about serious injuries from Jocks falling on synthetic tracks, the horses suddenly fall and jocks hit hard. All that energy in such a short time. On dirt there is lots of sliding.

One key is fans bring someone to races. One track has a special area for special treatment of newcomers.

The e-mailer is right. The fields these days are ridiculously small. Bottom line, there is just too much racing. There has been for years and the problem is only magnified now because of the horse shortage. Someone in this industry needs to step up and show some leadership or the ship is going to keep sinking.

Santa Anita announces five George Woolf finalists

The five finalists for the 2010 George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award include Calvin Borel, Garrett Gomez, Randall Meier, Gallyn Mitchell and DeShawn Parker, Santa Anita announced Wednesday. The winner, chosen by a vote of their peers, will be announced in January.

Presented annually since 1950, the Woolf is recognized as one of the most prestigious awards in thoroughbred racing. The candidates are judged by their careers and personal character. The winner’s trophy is a replica of the life-size statue of Woolf that sits in Santa Anita’s paddock garden.

Woolf died following a spill at Santa Anita on Jan. 13, 1946. He was regarded as one of the country’s top jocks and was known as “The Iceman.” He was recognized by his peers and media members for being a tough competitor and true professional.

Shirreffs deserves Eclipse Award

John Shirreffs may be only 10th in the nation in earnings among North American trainers, but sometimes the numbers tell only part of the story. The 64-year-old Arcadia resident deserves to win the Eclipse Award for top trainer this year, particularly when you consider the magnificent job he did with Zenyatta.

Shirreffs has saddled less than 100 starters, 96 to be exact, while the majority of conditioners ahead of him have all started well over 400. The No. 1 earner for instance, Steven Assmussen, went into Saturday having saddled 2,756 starters.

On Saturday at Hollywood Park, Shirreffs won a record fifth Bayakoa Handicap when 11-1 shot Zardana found the winner’s circle with Victor Espinoza aboard. Shirreffs also won the Bayakoa twice with Manistique (1998-99) and once with Starrer (2002) and Hollywood Story (2004).

All year, when fans were clamoring for Shirreffs to run Zenyatta against the males, the veteran conditioner remained patient, knowing full well her best shot against the boys would most likely come in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 7, despite the fact it would be a tougher race than the Hollywood Gold Cup or Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

Shirreffs didn’t want to run Zenyatta in the Gold Cup because he didn’t want her making her first start at 1 1/4 miles in only her second race back. He didn’t want to enter her in the Pacific Classic because she hated Del Mar’s Polytrack surface. Zenyatta’s exercise rider, Steve Willard, said one morning she didn’t even want to go out and gallop on the stuff.

That left the Goodwood and the Classic. If you’re going to run against the males once, why not prep for the race of your life in the Lady’s Secret and then go for all the marbles a month later?

That’s the route Shirreffs chose, and turns out it was the correct decision.

Of course, all that doesn’t even factor in his work with Life Is Sweet, who won the Ladies’ Classic 24 hours earlier than Zenyatta took the Classic, giving him a clean sweep of the weekend’s two biggest races.

There is no trainer in the country who turned in a better job in 2009 than John Shirreffs.

Jess Jackson talks about Horse of the Year race

Bill Christine talked to Jess Jackson, owner of Rachel Alexandra, about the Horse of the Year race this week and got some interestng observations from the 79-year-old billionaire who, to his credit, called Zenyatta owner Jerry Moss immediately after the Breeders’ Cup Classic to offer his congratulations.

How about the two female stars sharing Horse of the Year, Jess?

“You wouldn’t have two Heisman Award winners, would you?” Jackson told Christine in an interview that was published on Thursday. “You wouldn’t have co-winners of the Most Valuable Player Award in baseball. It would be silly, and wouldn’t prove anything, if these two horses shared the title.”

Hmmm, OK.

So, Jess, why does Rachel Alexandra deserve Horse of the Year over Zenyatta, a mare who became the first female to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in its 26 runnings?

“She did things that a female horse has never done,” he said. “The Kentucky Oaks, by more than 20 lengths, biggest margin in the history of the race. The Preakness, first filly to win it in 85 years. Mother Goose, biggest margin, breaking Ruffian’s record, and fastest time ever. Haskell, beating the boys again, and second-biggest margin and only two-fifths of a second off track record. Woodward, first filly ever. In the Mother Goose, she was eased up, and still only missed Secretariat’s 1 1/8-mile track record by four ticks.”

Christine covers a great deal more subjects with Jackson in the story, including who he thinks should and shouldn’t be voting for Horse of the Year, why the sport needs a commissioner and why there should be separate awards for synthetic horses and dirt horses.

I sorta get the feeling that Jackson still considers Zenyatta a synthetic freak, despite the fact the second most impressive race of her career came over Oaklawn Park’s dirt surface in the 2008 Apple Blossom Handicap.

Let us know what you think, and please add some of your own comments on the Horse of the Year debate.