By Richard Rosenblatt
It took most of opening day, but Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert saw one of his horses make a trip to the winner’s circle at Santa Anita on Saturday courtesy of a brilliant return to the races by Charlatan.
The 3-year-old colt pulled away from 6-5 favorite Nashville at the quarter pole for an emphatic 4 ½-length victory in the $300,000 Malibu Stakes (G1) in his return to the races.
After finishing first in a division of the Arkansas Derby (G1) on May 2, the unbeaten colt was considered among the favorites for the Kentucky Derby (on Sept. 5) with a 3-0 record. Charlatan, though, failed a post-race drug test (an overage of lidocaine) and was later disqualified and did not run in any of the Triple Crown races.
Ridden for the first time by Hall of Famer Mike Smith – one of Baffert’s big-money riders – 8-5 second choice Charlatan ($5.20) covered the 7 furlongs in 1:21.50.
Nashville, sent off as the 6-5 favorite after winning his first three starts and setting a track record at Keeneland in the 6-furlong Perryville Stakes on Breeders’ Cup day (Nov. 7), tired in the stretch and finished fourth. The late-blooming 3-year-old is trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen.
“First of all, my hat’s off to Bob and his whole crew to get this horse ready off an eight-month layoff,” said Smith. “To run against these types of horses was a feat itself, but I always thought he was a special horse. When Bob told me I got the call, man I’ve been kind of on cloud nine ever since.”
Added Baffert: “They were rolling early, there was a really good horse he was chasing. With what this horse has been through, I’m just happy for the whole team and everybody involved, to show he is a really special horse. Hopefully, we will have a good (new) year with him.”
The field of six also included Baffert trainee Thousand Words, who was never in contention and finished last.
Express Train finished second, followed by Collusion Illusion, Nashville, Independence Day, and Thousand Words.
Earlier, Baffert-trained Much Gusto finished fourth in the San Antonio Stakes (G2), and his foursome of Golden Principal, Merneith, Provocation, and Himiko ran second, third, sixth, and seventh, respectively, in the La Brea Stakes (G1).
Opening day was run without spectators due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
The stakes races began predictably, with 4-5 favorite Smooth Like Strait posting as three-quarter length victory in a field of seven 3-year-olds going 1 mile on the turf.
Trained by Michael McCarthy, Smooth Like Strait ($3.60) raced second behind Storm the Court and rallied in the stretch for the win over the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner who is 0-for-8 since then.
Smooth Like Strait, ridden by Umberto Rispoli, won in 1:33.51 for his fourth win in seven starts in 2020.
“We knew Storm the Court would be going for the lead, so I just wanted to sit back of him,” said Rispoli. “We got the perfect trip. When it came time to ask him in the stretch, he was ready to go.”
In his previous start, Smooth Like Strait was a close second in the Hollywood Derby (G1) at Del Mar on Nov. 28.
“I was surprised at how well he came out of the Hollywood Derby,” said McCarthy. “He put in a couple of works that were I thought maintenance type works, but everything he was showing me in the morning, and the way he was acting around the barn (indicated he was ready to run).”
Storm the Court was ridden for the first time by John Velazquez. Whisper Not was third.
Kiss Today Goodbye rolled along from last to first and sprung a huge upset over trainer Bob Baffert’s 1-2 favorite Mucho Gusto, who finished fourth in his first start in 10 months.
Sent off at 15-1 in a field of six, Kiss Today Goodbye rallied wide under Hall of Famer Mike Smith in the stretch and held off Idol by 1 ½ lengths. The winning payoff was $33.60 on a $2 win bet.
Unplaced on turf in the Del Mar Derby (G2) on Sept. 6 and the Twilight Derby on Oct. 18, Kiss Today Goodbye won an allowance on dirt at Del Mar on Nov. 14.
Kiss Today Goodbye won his first stakes race and improved to 10-3-0-3.
“He was always very immature early on. It just took him longer to get to where he is and I think he is really just beginning to mature,” said winning trainer Eric Kruljac.
Mucho Gusto won the $3 million Pegasus World Cup (G1) in January and ran a respectable fourth in the $20 million Saudi Cup in February.
With trainer Bob Baffert sending out four of the 10 starters, it was 20-1 longshot Fair Maiden ($43.20) trained by Eoin Harty who rallied in the stretch for a 2 ¼-length victory over Baffert’s Golden Principal. Baffert’s other entries ran third (Merneith), sixth (Provocation), and seventh (Himiko).
Finite, the 2-1 favorite, was never a serious challenger, and finished fourth for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Owned by Godolphin, Fair Maiden covered the 7 furlongs in 1:22.69 under Ricky Gonzalez. With Golden Principal setting the pace in the field of 10 3-year-old fillies, Fair Maiden was six-deep off the turn but easily reeled in Golden Principal. It was the first Grade 1 win for Gonzalez.
The winner improved to 8-4-1-1 overall.
“I was just so happy and excited, to just ride these kinds of horses, it feels great. I’m very thankful to Eoin and all the trainers for all the opportunities,’’ said Gonzalez.
No Baffert runners in this one, but turfmeister trainer Chad Brown’s Duopoly ($14) went gate-to-wire for a two-length victory over Going to Vegas.
Sharing, the 8-5 favorite and winner of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) at Santa Anita, was third in the field of 10 3-year-olds fillies going 1 ¼ miles.
Breaking from post 8 in a hillside start, Duopoly took to the front under Flavien Prat, made the rail and drew away for her fourth victory in six career starts and first graded stakes wins. Winning time was 2:01.
“She was full of herself and traveling perfect,’’ said Prat. “When I asked her she really kicked in. She never really ran the distance but I guess Chad Brown doesn’t come down here just to race.”
Added Jose Hernandez, Brown’s assistant: “She used to run a mile and sixteenth, but now against fillies she wants to take the lead easily with her ears pinned back.”
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.