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Santa Anita opens Friday as prelude to Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar

Horses run in a race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia.
(Mark J. Terrill / Associated Press)

This year’s Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar is about a month away and it couldn’t have worked out better for Santa Anita. Trainers want one sharp performance from their horses before the Nov. 5-6 races. Owners are looking for an entry-fee free invitation to the sport’s biggest money weekend of the year.

All of which is why Santa Anita has 14 stakes races over three days, starting with Friday’s opening to its 16-day season. Seven of the winners are automatically entered into one of the Breeders’ Cup races. Trainers like to run their top horses a month apart, which is why the timing works.

As an added incentive, Santa Anita is reopening its downhill turf course to limited sprint races for the first time since March 31, 2019, during the height of the fatality crisis in the long winter-spring meeting that took the lives of 30 horses either racing or training. The featured race is Friday’s Grade 2 $200,000 Eddie D Stakes, named after legendary jockey Eddie Delahoussaye.

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California has significantly reduced the number of fatalities through reforms initiated by the California Horse Racing Board and The Stronach Group, which owns Santa Anita. The track had 15 racing or training deaths this year, including one horse training Thursday.

It’s not as if controversy has left the track as a few storylines for this weekend’s racing go through trainer Bob Baffert. The Hall of Famer has been under attack some places, but not Southern California, after Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive for a legal anti-inflammatory, that is not permitted on race day. It was Baffert’s fifth medication overage in a year.

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Medina Spirit is the centerpiece of Saturday’s Grade 1 $300,000 Awesome Again Stakes as the 3-year-old will be running against older horses for the first time. A win earns a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the sport’s most important race outside the Triple Crown.

Medina Spirit was supposed to run in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby last Saturday, but Baffert scratched him after the draw saying he didn’t like the post, but that wasn’t the entire reason.

“I was just being cautious,” Baffert said Thursday morning while watching his horses work out. “There was a lot that went into it. I think everything has to be perfect for me to put them on a plane. I was on the fence anyway because I thought the extra week would have helped him. If the Penn Derby were this week I would have gone. I think that extra week will help him from that last race,” the Shared Belief which he won at Del Mar. “It just didn’t feel right for me.”

Medina Spirit is the slight morning-line favorite at 5-2. John Sadler’s Tripoli, winner of the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, is the 3-1 second choice in the 1 1/8-mile race. There are two other Breeders’ Cup qualifying races Saturday, the Grade 1 $300,000 Rodeo Drives stakes for fillies and mares going 1 1/4 miles on the turf and the Grade 2 $200,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship for horses going six furlongs.

John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby.
John Velazquez riding Medina Spirit crosses the finish line to win the 147th running of the Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1 in Louisville, Ky.
(Jeff Roberson / Associated Press)

Santa Anita is hoping for a bigger-than-normal crowd Friday for Kentucky Derby and Oaks qualifying races with a carrot of free general admission and parking. The points qualifying races are a conditional thing. Churchill Downs has banned Baffert for two years and said his horses can’t receive qualifying points even if they earn them.

Baffert has the favorites in the 2-year-old colt and gelding race, the Grade 1 $300,000 American Pharoah, which was once won by the Triple Crown winner. Corniche, a $1.5-million purchase and winner of his only race by 4 1/4 lengths, is the 6-5 first choice while Rockefeller is the 3-1 second choice along with Oviatt Class, trained by Keith Desormeaux. Rockefeller won his only race by 2 1/4 lengths.

“[Corniche] worked OK here, the track when we first got here,” Baffert said. “It was not like Del Mar, it was really deep. Some horses struggled with it. I think the two turns will work out. He’s fast and he’s quick.”

The Grade 2 $200,000 Chandelier Stakes is the Kentucky Oaks qualifying race for 2-year-old fillies. Again, Baffert has the favorite with Grace Adler, winner of the Del Mar Debutante by 11 1/4 lengths. Baffert would not address the points issue.

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The final Breeders’ Cup qualifier Friday is the $100,000 Speakeasy Stakes for 2-year-olds going five furlongs on the turf.

Sunday’s card has only one Breeders’ Cup qualifier among its five stakes races, the Grade 2 $200,000 Zenyatta Stakes for fillies and mares trying to get into the Distaff, the biggest race for female horses.


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