As the Great Race Place prepares to run its signature race, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, for the 73rd time today, all may not be lost on the local front that is California horse racing.
* Upon returning home from a trip to California in which he managed to alienate the California Horse Racing Board, confound horsemen and perhaps shock the media with his announcement that he would not soon be replacing a Santa Anita track that on occasion resembles a lake more than a racing surface, Frank Stronach sent signals to the powers that be that he will indeed be replacing the track, for officials to continue searching for a suitable replacement. It appears Stronach might be doing a little posturing, seeking some concessions and perhaps financial help in laying down the new surface. He knows Santa Anita needs a new surface, and sooner rather than later. Now when that happens is anybody’s guess, but Stronach believes the new track can be laid down in eight weeks and it’s still a good bet that Santa Anita will have a new traditional dirt surface by the beginning of the Oak Tree meet.
* A weather forecast that called for a 70 percent chance of rain beginning early this morning and potentially causing the sixth cancellation of the meet and the first postponement of the Big ‘Cap, has suddenly turned in Santa Anita’s favor. The chance of rain has been reduced to 60 percent and a storm that was originally supposed to drop as much as two inches of rain on the Southland now is expected to yield about a half-inch, an amount even Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface can handle. For one of the few times this meet, track president Ron Charles may be able to smile today.
* There are two schools of thought regarding when California horse racing began its decline. Trainer Mel Stute believes the formation of the Thoroughbred Owners of California signaled the beginning of the demise, while another veteran horseman, Bruce Headley, says the additon of wood products to the state’s tracks beginning in the ’70s was the start of the downturn. Headley said he’s been witness to three eras — the traditional sandy loam tracks, the wood product tracks and the synthetic surfaces. He says his barn hasn’t suffered any fatalities since the synthetics were mandated by the CHRB, but injuries are much more plentiful. He cited Surf Cat, who was one of the soundest horses he’s ever trained yet suffered a career-ending shoulder injury during the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita.
* Anybody who doesn’t think Alex Solis can still ride should check out a replay of Thursday’s third race at Santa Anita when Solis guided the Howard Zucker-trained Worth a Punt to a nose victory over Siete Machos in the starter allowance event. Sixth early on in the eight-horse field comprised of 3-year-olds, Solis saved ground with Worth a Punt around the turf, angled out in the stretch and closed resolutely to score his 12th victory of the meet. He raised that total to 13 on Friday when he won the seventh race for trainer Dan Hendricks. Hopefully, Solis will get the honor this year that he’s deserved for years by being voted into the Hall of Fame.
* Here’s our selections for today’s four graded stakes races at Santa Anita:
Sham — I like Nextdoorneighbor. Trainer Mike Machowsky believes the Lido Palace colt could be better than his unbeaten stablemate, Caracortado, and he’s got the numbers to win the Grade 3 event.
Santa Anita Oaks — Blind Luck won her last start by a nose in the one-mile Las Virgenes on talent alone. She’s not a one-mile filly. She’ll be better at today’s distance of 1 1/16 miles and even stronger in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks on April 30 if she enters the starting gate.
Kilroe Mile — OK, I admit I’d like to see Fluke, the Grade 1 Citation Handicap winner at Hollywood Park on Nov. 27, win this one for trainer Humberto Ascanio, the late Bobby Frankel’s former assistant who’s lost most of his good horses to other trainers since Frankel’s death. Fluke is certainly capable of winning in this spot because he’s been first or second in four of his six grass races at the distance and is one for two over the Santa Anita lawn.
Santa Anita Handicap — The John Shirreffs Tour de Force continues as Neko Bay, coming off a victory in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 9, finds the winner’s circle to give both Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith their first taste of Big ‘Cap success. Shirreffs’ other entrant, Mast Track, is also dangerous if he gets out on the lead by himself. But let’s face it, nine of the 14 starters could win here in one of the most wide-open Big ‘Caps ever.
I leave you with a stretch replay of my favorite all-time Big ‘Cap, when Vigors came charging home from last to win the 1978 edition. I’ve never seen a horse who could accelerate as quickly as “the big white horse,” as track announcer Dave Johnson calls him, until Zenyatta hit the scene: