By Ed McNamara
Back in the mid-Sixties, 14-year-old me watched “That Was The Week That Was,” an Americanized version of an earlier British TV series that satirized current events. Some of the political material was over my head, and all I recall is a catchy theme song. It began: “That was the week that was, it’s over, let it go.”
That’s good advice about 2021, another surreal year for horse racing marred by the seemingly endless pandemic. In a sport focused on predicting the future, no one could have forecast these events:
The descent of Bob Baffert from Mr. Derby to Mr. Pariah. The Face of Racing became the face no one wanted to see. Medina Spirit’s on-track death Dec. 6 after a workout at Santa Anita was another savage blow to Baffert’s befouled reputation.
The scratch that can’t be itched. Breeders’ Cup Friday ended after the premature and unnecessary scratch of Juvenile Turf favorite Modern Games, who won easily but enriched no bettors because he ran for purse money only.
I could go on, but why bother harping on what we’d like to forget but can’t? As for 2021, it’s almost over, so let it go.
At least we have a nice way to end it. For horseplayers, the annual opening of Santa Anita on Sunday (Dec. 26) is better than any presents they got the day before. Sunday’s card at The Great Race Place offers six graded stakes, including three Grade 1s — the La Brea, Malibu and American Oaks. Maybe I can gift you with a couple of winners.
Looks like a two-horse race between Friars Road (2), who’s turning back from longer races (1 3/8 miles, 1 1/4, 1 1/2) and standout miler Hit the Road, who’s 4-for-6 at Santa Anita and regularly zips his final furlong in 23 seconds. Hit the Road stays closest to likely pacesetter Bob and Jackie (3) and gets first run on Friars Road.
$200,000 San Antonio (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 3-year-olds and up
If Triple Crown warrior Hot Rod Charlie (4) is even close to being fully cranked, he should dominate. He won’t pay much, so I’m not planning to bet. His only subpar race this year was his last, and it was a decent fourth behind runaway winner Knicks Go in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He’s been working well for his return and gets class relief after five straight Grade 1s.
Hot Rod Charlie 2. Express Train 3. Eight Rings
$200,000 Mathis Brothers Mile (G2), turf, 3-year-olds
Du Jour (7) cuts back to his proper distance for Baffert after three straight defeats trying farther (1 1/4 miles, 1 3/16, 1 5/16) than he wants to go. He’s 3-for-4 at 1 1/16 or shorter and 2-for-2 at Santa Anita. The main danger is the improved Beyond Brilliant (8), who set a slow pace last time and hung on to take the Grade 1 Hollywood Derby at 1 1/8 miles.
$300,000 La Brea (G1), 7 furlongs, 3-year-old fillies
Private Mission (4) looks tough in this elongated sprint. Forget her speed-and-fade in the 9-furlong Breeders’ Cup Distaff, where she was in over her head. She’s 4-for-5 from 6 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, and 7 furlongs should suit her well. Her stablemate Kalypso (3) is working well off a break of nearly eight months, and she won a 7-furlong stakes over the track early this year.
$300,000 Malibu (G1), 7 furlongs, 3-year-olds
The phenom Flightline (5) freaked in his only two starts, coasting by 13 and 12 lengths. Is he good enough to beat Dr. Schivel (4), a three-time stakes winner who missed by a nose in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint? I’m not sure, and neither colt’s odds will be enticing, but I’m likely to make a small win bet on the one with the better price.
$300,000 American Oaks (G1), 1 1/4 miles, turf, 3-year-old fillies
Going Global (5) is a half-length from an eight-race winning streak that’s lasted more than 13 months. Although this is her first attempt at 1 1/4 miles, she’s won three graded stakes at 1 1/8. Nicest (4) has been in the money four times at 1 1/4 or longer, but her only win in nine starts was at a mile in her debut last year in Ireland. The likelihood of a rain-softened course would move her up. Fluffy Socks (1) ships from New York for Chad Brown, and if she won, it would be no surprise. She’s a strong finisher at 1 1/8, and her pedigree says she’ll thrive in her first attempt over 10 furlongs.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.