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Santa Anita's winter-spring meet will open with four graded stakes

Santa Anita's winter-spring meet will open with four graded stakes
Michael Wrona will be calling the action at Santa Anita Park this year. ((Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times))

The signature winter-spring meet of Santa Anita gets underway Tuesday with a nine-race card that features four graded stakes.

Last year, opening day drew a huge crowd of 46,514 and this year’s card is even better with the addition of the Grade 2 $300,000 San Antonio Stakes, which moved from February to allow it to be a prep race for the $16-million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream on Jan. 27.

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It’s unclear if Santa Anita can duplicate those numbers this year in what will be one of the closest watched meetings in the history of the track. Chief executive Tim Ritvo has staked his claim for change in this meeting by challenging his staff to write better races for smaller-barn trainers and overall fuller fields in every race. He’s also trying to appeal to bettors by adding a super high five (top five horses in a race) in each race and a 50-cent late pick-five.

But the late pick-five underscores some of the problems in the industry and disconnect between those who run the sport and those who bet on it. The early pick-five carries a 14% takeout (how much of the wager is taken off the top) but the late pick-five carries with it a 23.68% takeout, standard for multi-horse and race exotics in California.

One race is clearly a better bargain than the other, but will the bettors discriminate?

The San Antonio, 1 1/16 of a mile, for older horses, is the third race (about 1 p.m.) and features Collected, who finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to Gun Runner. Mike Smith will be riding the Bob Baffert-trained 3-5 favorite for the first time as former rider Martin Garcia has moved to New York. Accelerate and Hoppertunity are second favorites at 5-1. Hopportunity has won this race the last two years.

The Grade 1 $300,000 La Brea Stakes (seventh race, 3 p.m.) over seven furlongs for 3-year-old fillies has one of the more intriguing matchups with Paradise Woods (8-5 morning line) going against Unique Bella (9-5).

Paradise Woods had one of the most dominating performances of the year, winning the Santa Anita Oaks by almost 12 lengths. But she got caught up in a speed duel in the Kentucky Oaks and finished 11th. She was third in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Unique Bella won her first four races this year, before finishing seventh in the Breeders’ Cup Fillies and Mares Sprint.

The other major stakes are the Grade 2 $200,000 Mathis Brothers Mile (sixth race, 2:30 p.m.) over the turf and the Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes (eighth race, 3:30 p.m.) for 3-year-olds going seven furlongs.

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