On the first day after Christmas, jockey Gary Stevens was trying to milk the last teaspoon of energy out of Camby down the Santa Anita stretch.
The longest shot in the second race of the track’s 81st winter-spring meet opening day seemingly had secured an unassailable lead. The few in the crowd of 40,023 who essentially bought a lottery ticket on Camby at the pari-mutuel windows could envision a payoff substantial enough to put a dent in their holiday gift-giving debt.
But Camby was a 55-1 shot for a reason. He was hauled down just before the wire by Kanthaka, an outcome that was disappointing to some — but not to the runner-up’s rider.
“I was pretty much on a high after that second race,” said Stevens, lauding Camby’s effort.
Half an hour later, Stevens set sail again on the entrant with the highest odds, a back-to-back rarity for a Hall of Fame jockey.
Once more, he was well ahead approaching the finish line, this time on Giant Expectations (13-1 odds) in a race with much more cachet. The Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes had a celebrity-studded field that featured Collected, runner-up in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, plus Accelerate and Hoppertunity, the event’s two-time defending champion.
Giant Expectations got the jump on the rest and Stevens was stunned that he went largely unchallenged through a dawdling pace to get the win. Unbeknownst to him, jockey Mike Smith had slipped when leaving the gate — “It was a bad ride,” he confessed — and the normally front-running Collected, favored at 3-10, was reduced to a bit role.
“I had a big smile on my face going around the first turn,” Stevens said. “The race was won in that first turn.”
Giant Expectations, who was shelved nearly a year for treatment of a respiratory ailment, is making up for lost time. Since breaking his maiden on Memorial Day, the horse has crammed seven starts into the remainder of the calendar, including the Breeders’ Dirt Mile last month.
The San Antonio, normally staged in February, was moved up so contestants could use it as a prep for the sport’s most lucrative outing, the $16-million Pegasus on Jan. 27 at Gulfstream Park.
Trainer Peter Eurton declined to address his plans for Giant Expectations. “I’m just going to enjoy this,” he said.
His joy was matched, if not exceeded, by the triumphant trainers of two other stakes races on the card.
Phil D’Amato was on the grounds at the recent San Luis Rey Downs fire that killed 46 thoroughbreds, including two promising prospects in his barn.
“It was literally like a war zone,” he said after Bowies Hero, the second choice at 3-1, chased down Froy in the Grade 2 Mathis Brothers Mile to win by half a length. “There were lots of courageous people that day.”
He added: “To win a race like this [three] weeks later is a great pick-me-up for the barn.”
Michael McCarthy choked back happy tears after his City of Light, with the young Drayden Van Dyke aboard, convincingly took the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes by two lengths.
“I’m an emotional guy,” McCarthy said. “I get fired up pretty easy.”
McCarthy was moved by the memory of the winner’s owner, William K. Warner, being the first to entrust the trainer with his horses. McCarthy had worked for Todd Pletcher before training on his own.
“I appreciate everybody letting us take our time with this horse,” he said.
McCarthy was less appreciative of drawing the No. 1 hole, but Van Dyke, who took over for regular rider Stevens, maneuvered City of Light (7-1 odds) deftly from the gate.
“He responded well. He wanted to take off,” Van Dyke said.
The jockey’s mentor, Smith, rebounded from his uncharacteristic flub on Collected to capture the other stakes, the Grade 1 La Brea, aboard the massive filly Unique Bella, favored at 6-5.
Form held for this race as Unique Bella outfought the second pick, Paradise Woods, to atone for a dreadful showing in the Breeders’ Filly and Mare Sprint. Smith showed his appreciation with a kiss for Unique Bella.
“She went out too fast,” trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said of the first-to-seventh retreat at Del Mar. “Today, [Smith] let her lay a little off the pace and kept her wide, and she finished well.”
Though the opening-day attendance was down from a year ago, the handle from all sources crept slightly higher to $17,279,161. The addition of a second Pick 5 to the wagering menu lured some extra dollars.