Surrounded by a blue sky with light clouds, temperature in the 60s and the lush San Gabriel Mountains as an invigorating backdrop, an opening day crowd of 41,373 made its way to Santa Anita on Wednesday to witness some old and some new in a sport that keeps fighting for relevancy in sports-crazed Southern California.
There were the usual free wall calendars given out to patrons on the day after Christmas. There was a new ice skating rink in the infield packed with kids. There was a free stuffed pony given out to children 12 and under that was so popular 80-year-olds were claiming to be 12. There was a new track announcer, Frank Mirahmadi, promising to open his eyes and “tell the people what you’re seeing.”
There was the return of jockey Joel Rosario to full-time winter status on the West Coast, ready to offer new competition for rising stars Drayden Van Dyke and Flavien Prat.
And, as usual, there was the silver-haired Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, and the ageless jockey wonder, Mike Smith, combining their talents to win the biggest race of a five-stakes day, the Grade I, $300,000 Malibu Stakes, when McKinzie crushed a 14-horse field with a 4 3/4-length victory in the seven-furlong race. Identity Politics finished second and Still Having Fun was third.
“He was loaded from the word go,’’ Smith said of the 3-year-old colt who was once considered Baffert’s best Kentucky Derby hopeful last year until an injury sidelined him and a horse named Justify came along and won the Triple Crown for Baffert and Smith.
“The reason he’s good now is he missed the classics,” Baffert said. “It’s hard on young horses and shows how great Justify was.”
McKinzie, a son of Street Sense, has had a special place in Baffert’s heart because he’s named for Brad McKinzie, a former Los Alamitos racing executive who died in 2017 at age 62.
“I’m sure his namesake is looking down on him,” Baffert said.
The 10-race card began with Rosario serving notice he’s prepared to regain his top spot in the jockey colony that he relinquished when he left for the East Coast in 2012 after winning 11 riding titles at Santa Anita, Del Mar and Hollywood Park. He won the first race aboard Twentytwentyvision for the Hronis brothers, Kosta and Pete, the owners of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate.
“Everybody has welcomed me,” Rosario said. “It’s very special. It’s nice to be back. They want me to stay.”
Then Rosario won again for the Hronis brothers and trainer John Sadler by guiding 6-1 longshot Gift Box to victory in the $300,000 San Antonio Stakes over second-place Battle Of Midway.
Kosta looked out from the paddock and smiled at the excitement he felt with the anticipation of the year ahead.
“This is where we grew up coming when we were little,” he said. “This is our race track home. Any day at Santa Anita is great and opening day is always special. It’s the start of a new season. We need improvements in our sport. We have to be 2019. We can’t stick with the old times. We have to do new things, attract new people and get excited about the sport.”
Santa Anita’s immaculate turf course looked like a fairway at Riviera Country Club. Trainer Jeff Mullins won both of the turf stakes. Amandine, under Van Dyke, took the $75,000 Lady Of Shamrock by 2 1/4 lengths over Ms Bad Behavior, finishing the mile in 1:35.10 at odds of 9-5. River Boyne, with Prat aboard, won the $200,000 Mathis Brothers Mile by a head as the 2-5 favorite over Desert Stone. River Boyne is six for six on the turf at Santa Anita and completed the course in 1:34.52.
The biggest surprise of the afternoon was the Cal-bred 3-year-old filly Spiced Perfection winning the Grade 1, $300,000 La Brea Stakes by 1 1/4 lengths over Hot Autumn. Emboldened finished third and odds-on favorite Dream Tree was last in the eight-horse field.
Trained by Brian Koriner and ridden by Prat, Spiced Perfection was a $50,000 Barretts Sales purchase last year and is the first Grade I winner produced by the stallion Smiling Tiger. Koriner said a buyer recently offered $500,000 to purchase Spiced Perfection, then backed out. She covered the seven furlongs in 1:23.54 and increased her career earnings to $622,405.
“It was a great move up, to have little pedigree and win a Grade I,” Koriner said.
It’s going to be a big year for Santa Anita, which hosts the Breeders’ Cup for a 10th time on Nov. 1-2. This weekend’s jockey colony almost resembles a Breeders’ Cup weekend with five of the nation’s top six jockeys in purse earnings coming to town for three Grade I events, including brothers Irad Jr. and Jose Ortiz, John Velazquez and Florent Geroux.