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Kentucky Derby season begins at Santa Anita

Kentucky Derby season begins at Santa Anita
Owner Kaleem Shah guides Bellafina and jockey Flavien Prat to the winner's circle after their victory in the Grade I $300,000 Del Mar Debutante in September. (AP)

It’s that time of year when every racehorse, all sharing the collective Jan. 1 birth date, is deemed a year older and with it, the continued weeding out of more than 20,000 foals born in 2016, most with the goal of ending up in Louisville during the first weekend in May.

Santa Anita will start its 3-year-old culling process this weekend with a pair of stakes, which carry with them qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. Winning either of these races will in no way get you in the Derby or Oaks, but it’s a good first step.

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Saturday will be the Grade 3 $100,000 Sham Stakes for colts going a mile. On Sunday, the Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Ynez Stakes will be held for fillies running seven furlongs.

Of the seven colts and five fillies, none had more promise as a 2-year-old than Bellafina, an oversized filly that seemed unbeatable. After a second-place finish in her first race, she won stakes races by 4 ½, 4 ½ and, in the Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita, 6 ½ lengths. She would have easily been crowned the Eclipse Award-winning best 2-year-old filly if she were to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, a race in which she was the favorite.

But she came up flat, finishing a well-beaten fourth.

“It was definitely disappointing,” said trainer Simon Callaghan. “After the race, she showed she was in [breeding] season, and a lot of fillies don’t do their best running when they are like that. It was just bad timing and things just didn’t work out.”

A female horse’s breeding cycle usually ends in the fall and does not extend to November, when the Breeders’ Cup was held.

Callaghan thinks he’s got everything figured out now.

“We’re just hopeful to get her back to her winning ways [in Sunday’s Santa Ynez],” Callaghan said, pointing out her two Grade 1 wins. “Coming into this race, she is exactly where we would want her for the year.”

Callaghan wants to give Bellafina two races before the Santa Anita Oaks on April 6.

“After the Santa Anita Oaks, we’ll have a definite plan for her going forward and know what her best distance will be,” Callaghan said. “As a 2-year-old, she won at six [furlongs], seven [furlongs] and 1 1/16 [miles]. Now that she’s 3 and a bit more mature, she’ll show us if she’s at her very best sprinting or going the Oaks distance. The Santa Anita Oaks will decide if we’re going to Kentucky.”

The Kentucky Oaks is held the day before the Kentucky Derby.

Expectations have always been high for Bellafina, especially after owner Kaleem Shah paid $800,000 for her at the Fasig-Tipton Florida sale last year.

“She clicked all the boxes,” Callaghan said. “I presented the filly to Kaleem and it made a lot of sense [to buy her]. Quality Road is a good sire lately. He’s had City of Light, Abel Tasman and several other horses. We had to go pretty high to get her. When you give that amount of money, naturally, you’re going to have high expectations.”

Callaghan has a lot of knowledge about Abel Tasman, whom he used to train until the filly was taken from him after her jockey wore the silks of co-owner Clearsky Farm instead of the silks of the China Horse Club, who had just bought a piece of the horse.

Callaghan was bitter at the time but has moved on.

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“She’s been a great filly,” Callaghan said of Abel Tasman. “She won six Grade 1s. Collectively, she’s achieved a lot. Of course, it would have been nice to have been along as her trainer, but it wasn’t to be. That’s life.”

Abel Tasman has since been retired after poor performances in the Zenyatta Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

But this first weekend of the year is about careers getting going rather than ending.

In Saturday’s Sham Stakes, trainer Bob Baffert has yet another promising 3-year-old in Coliseum, who won his only race by 6 ¾ lengths. Baffert’s crop of now 3-year-olds is incredibly impressive with nine undefeated colts, although not all are Kentucky Derby quality. He will have to work to find spots for all of them to run in the coming weeks.

The best of those is Game Winner, who is undefeated in four starts and has three Grade 1 wins. Improbable is undefeated in three starts with one Grade 1 win. Baffert hasn’t announced plans for either of those colts.

Coliseum, the even-money favorite Saturday, could put himself in that company if he wins impressively. Also in the Sham is Gunmetal Gray, fifth to Game Winner in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and second to him in the American Pharoah. Gunmetal Gray is the second favorite at 5-2.

There is a second stakes Saturday, the Grade 2 $200,000 San Gabriel for older horses going 1 1/8 miles on the turf.

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