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Santa Anita’s opening weekend includes California Chrome and Beholder

Jockey Victor Espinoza is all smiles after guiding California Chrome to victory in the $1-million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 20.
(Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press)

After one of the more interesting and unpredictable years in horse racing, Santa Anita finds itself with a 23-day fall meeting that will no doubt generate more questions than answers but in the end be where all the bragging and breeding rights are settled.

Friday is the first day of the meeting, but all the attention turns to Saturday, where there will be five Grade 1 stakes races filled with star power.

The headliner is California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, and easily the most popular and to this point most talented horse in the world. He’ll be running in the $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes over 1 1/8 miles. If Chrome wins Saturday, and again at the end of the meeting in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, he will receive a $1-million bonus. He qualified for that with a seemingly effortless win over a very strong field in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar last month.

The two best female horses not named Songbird will renew their rivalry in the $300,000 Zenyatta Stakes. Beholder and Stellar Wind will head a field of five over 1 1/16 miles. The winner, if not both mares, probably will face the undefeated 3-year-old filly Songbird in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

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And in the $300,000 Frontrunner Stakes there will be a peek into next year’s early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, when Klimt, winner of the Del Mar Futurity and trained by Bob Baffert, goes against Straight Fire, second in the Del Mar Futurity and trained by Keith Desormeaux.

The last two winners of this race were Nyquist, this year’s Kentucky Derby winner, and American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

The Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 4-5 is considered the Super Bowl of horse racing. It’s not known if Nyquist and Exaggerator, winner of the Preakness, will run because  both had disappointing performances in the Pennsylvania Derby.

Also likely for the Classic is Arrogate, whose 13 ½-length win in the Travers Stakes set a record time over 1 1/4 miles at the almost 150-year-old Saratoga track. The Classic will be the lightly raced colt’s first race since the Travers.

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“I might have liked to put another race in him,” Baffert said. “But I also didn’t want to throw him in against California Chrome. He’s still maturing. But I feel comfortable with where he is. Hopefully, he’ll be ready but you still need a lot of racing luck.”

Baffert, despite not having a marquee Triple Crown finisher or even an older superstar, has put up impressive numbers the last two Southern California meetings. At Del Mar, he was the fourth-leading trainer with 19 wins despite starting fewer horses than those that finished in front of him. But what stood out was a 25% win mark and 57% in the money.

He was the second-leading trainer at the last Santa Anita meeting, again, despite starting almost half as many horses as leading trainer Phil D’Amato. Baffert won at a 31% clip and a staggering 62% in-the-money mark.

“I think a lot of it [the success] is not resting on your laurels,” Baffert said about this first year following American Pharoah’s Triple Crown. “But the key is to find the best horses. I try and look at it like a football coach and figure out how I can make it better.”

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Some might see having the Breeders’ Cup at your home track as an advantage.

“The only thing that makes it easier is if you have the right kind of horses,” Baffert said. “Staying home makes it easier, only if you have the best horse.”

Baffert has entered in the Awesome Again Stakes both Dortmund, who gave California Chrome one of his toughest races in the San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, and Hoppertunity, who finished third to Chrome in the Dubai World Cup. Baffert said he is likely to scratch Hoppertunity out of Saturday’s race to possibly run the 5-year-old in the Jockey Club next week at Belmont Park.

The Zenyatta Stakes will occupy the featured ninth-race spot on Saturday’s 11-race card.

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The expectation was that Beholder, who probably had the most dominating move of 2015 while winning the Pacific Classic, would finish this year mostly running against the boys and pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

However, after winning her first two races of 2016, she was stunned when she was beaten by Stellar Wind in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar. Less than a month later, she wasn’t much of a factor in a second-place finish to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic.

“The fact [is] we were a very clear second, and with no excuses in the Pacific Classic,” trainer Richard Mandella said this week. “We didn’t run quite that good a race this year, so we lowered our expectations. There’s nothing wrong with the Distaff. It might be as tough as anything.”

Mandella even suggested the 6-year-old mare’s best days were behind her. “What we did last year might have just been kind of the peak of her life right there. Who knows?” he said.

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Saturday’s race against Stellar Wind should at least settle who is the best female horse to go against 11-0 Songbird, who won the Cotillion Stakes in Pennsylvania on Saturday.

The other two stakes races Saturday will be the Chandelier Stakes, the 2-year-old female version of the Frontrunner, at 1 1/16 miles, and the Rodeo Drive Stakes, for fillies and mares 3 and up at 1 1/4 miles on the turf course.

Friday’s opening day will have the $100,000 Eddie D. Stakes named after Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Delahoussaye. The race, to be run in two divisions, is 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill on the turf. It will be the first major test of the new turf course installed over the summer.

Post time most days, including Friday, is 1 p.m. This Saturday is 12:30 p.m.

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john.cherwa@latimes.com


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