Focus is on the racing — a stellar horse and record-setting jockey — on opening day at Santa Anita

Jockey John Velazquez rides Eight Rings ahead of the pack to win the American Pharoah Stakes, Santa Anita Autumn Race 8 at Santa Anita Park, which opened its 23-day Autumn Meet in Arcadia on Friday.
Jockey John Velazquez rides Eight Rings ahead of the pack to win the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita, which opened its 23-day autumn meet in Arcadia on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

Horse racing returned to Santa Anita on Friday after a 96-day absence and all the talk was about the racing. The protesters were gone and the only television cameras were on the backstretch doing a cheery meet-and-greet with trainer Dan Blacker, one of his horses and jockey Aaron Gryder.

One day down, 22 to go.

The racing was highlighted by the emergence of Eight Rings as a strong Kentucky Derby contender. He dominated the $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes, winning by six lengths.

John Velazquez, who flew in from New York, broke the stakes record for career victories when he won the $300,000 Chandelier Stakes aboard Bast. It was his 661st stakes win. He went to 662 when Eight Rings won. Both horses are trained by Bob Baffert.

And, Pee Wee Reese, after a six-month layoff, won the $200,000 Eddie D Stakes, a race run for the first time at five furlongs after the 6½-furlong downhill turf course was closed because of safety concerns.

Aidan Butler, Santa Anita’s new racing boss, met with the Los Angeles Times to talk about the challenges ahead after 31 horse deaths at the facility.


All the horses and jockeys returned home safely, but there was a scary moment in the Chandelier when Leucothea lost her jockey, Norberto Arroyo Jr., out of the gate. The filly ran full speed to the outside rail, sending about a dozen photographers and reporters scattering and clipping photographer Ryan Young, who was lying on the ground and didn’t see the horse coming. Young was taken to the infield first aid center and released. The horse and jockey were OK.

This might be the most important meeting in Santa Anita’s 85-year history, coming after 30 deaths over its winter/spring schedule. There were calls for the closure of the track. But the track stayed open with a promise of safety reforms — at Santa Anita and other tracks in California. There has not been a thoroughbred racing fatality in Southern California since June 9. There have been five during training, four at Del Mar and one at Santa Anita earlier this week. The meet finishes with the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 1-2.

Eight Rings’ win came after his poor outing in the Del Mar Futurity, where the colt was spooked, ducked in and lost jockey Drayden Van Dyke.

“Unfortunately, Del Mar was a disaster when somebody from the crowd said he can’t lose unless the jockey falls off,” Baffert said. “When I heard that, [I thought uh-oh].”

Leucothea sends photographers running as it gallops away from the starting line without jockey Norberto Arroyo Jr. at Santa Anita on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)
Santa Anita medics attend to an injured photographer after his back was run over by Leucothea on Friday.
(Allen J. Schaben / Los Angeles Times)

On Friday, Eight Rings went immediately to the lead and was never headed. The 2-year-old, running 1 1/16 miles for the first time, paid $4.40, $3.20 and $2.80. American Theorem, whose sire was American Pharoah, finished second followed by Storm The Court, Express Train, Shoplifted, Defense Wins, Fore Left, Nucky and Collusion Illusion.

“We knew we had a superstar in the making and he showed it today,” Baffert said.

Bast’s win in the Chandelier was overshadowed by Velasquez setting the stakes record, breaking the mark held by Jerry Bailey.

“This means a lot,” Velazquez said. “[Bailey] is a guy who I rode with for so many years and have looked up to for so long. It’s incredible.”

Baffert wasn’t looking for any credit in putting Velazquez on the 2-year-old flly.

“To be part of his record is exciting,” Baffert said. “But [trainer] Todd Pletcher is the one who got him all those graded wins. I played a very minor part. I really didn’t know it was a record until I read it the other day. That’s all I needed was a jinx like that to keep me from winning.”

Today begins the third year of this newsletter. It started two years ago with the fall Santa Anita meet.

Baffert plans to keep Velazquez on both horses for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies races.

Bast was shoulder to shoulder with Comical down the stretch but eventually widened a head lead to the winning margin of a neck. The remainder of the field was K P Dreamin, Been Studying Her and Buyer’s Remorse. Bast paid $2.40, $2.10 and $2.10 in the 1 1/16-mile race.

Flavien Prat was able to guide Pee Wee Reese through a hole on the inside to win by a half-length over Eddie Haskell for trainer Phil D’Amato. Pee Wee Reese paid $7.00, $3.80 and $2.80.

“Pee Wee was the captain of the Dodgers and he was the one who befriended Jackie [Robinson],” said Nick Alexander, the winning owner. “Pee Wee was part of the solution to get everyone to play together, that’s why I named the horse after him.”

The opening weekend continues Saturday with the Grade 1 $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes, the last major prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The favorite is McKinzie, who has finished first or second in 11 of his 12 races. The race is 1 1/8 miles. There is also the Grade 1 $300,000 Rodeo Drive Stakes for fillies and mares going 1¼ miles on the turf.