Opening day of the Santa Anita championship meet — always Dec. 26 no matter what day of the week — features six stakes races, including the Grade I Malibu. The 11-race card, with 102 horses entered including four also-eligibles, also features the Grade I American Oaks.
Bob Baffert has 14 horses entered including Taiba, the 6-5 morning-line favorite at the racebook in the Malibu. Mostly cloudy skies with temperatures in the upper 70s await some 25,000 fans expected to assemble in the shadows of the San Gabriel Mountains. Post time is 2 p.m. ET.
Malibu Stakes: Taiba Tries To Cap Successful Season
Race 10: 6:39 p.m. ET
Malibu has been won in recent years by Flightline (2021), City of Light (2017), and Run Happy (2015). There are no horses of this ilk running in this edition of the seven-furlong race for 3-year-olds, but one stands out. Taiba lays over his eight rivals on class and speed figures. The Gun Runner colt was rushed into the Kentucky Derby, finishing 12th after a pair of smashing efforts at Santa Anita. After a second in the Haskell, Taiba won the Pennsylvania Derby before a decent third — 8¾ lengths behind Flightline — in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November.
Taiba’s stiffest challenger appears to be Nakatomi. The Firing Line colt, trained by Wesley Ward, is rounding into top form after winning a race on the BC undercard. Other familiar faces in Malibu include Forbidden Kingdom and Messier. Taiba defeated those two in the Santa Anita Derby in April with the Forbidden Kingdom, the even-money favorite when betting online, 14 lengths back and Messier second by 2¼. Messier faded to 15th in the Kentucky Derby at 7-1.
The speed horses could set a wicked pace, setting it up for Mike Smith on Taiba and Tyler Gaffalione on Nakatomi. Gaffalione may get the jump on Smith, and Nakatomi could prevail with a career performance. Taiba’s class, though, will likely come through in the stretch.
- The Plays: 4-6 Exacta Box; 4,6 with 2 Doubles
American Oaks: Upset Looms
Race 11: 7:11 p.m. ET
Eleven 3-year-old fillies line up for this 1¼ mile turf test. Salimah, trained by Chad Brown and ridden by Flavien Prat, is the likely favorite. Salimah is a 3-for-4 lifetime and tries graded stakes company for the first time from post nine. Prat rode Bell street Bridie to an impressive victory in her U.S. debut last month in Grade III at Del Mar but opts to ride for the four-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner. There are other connections, though, with upset on their mind. Sparkle Blue drew post two for H. Graham Motion and is coming into this race in top form. Joel Rosario rides Sparkle Blue for the second time after they teamed up to win a Grade III at Keeneland in October, and can spring a mild upset with a ground-saving trip behind the speed.
- The Play: 2 to Win
Race 1: Grade II Mathis Mile Stakes (Post time, 2 p.m. ET)
Balnikhov is favored in the horse racing odds to beat six rivals in the one-mile turf race. Sumter, though, could spring the upset as the lone speed. Sumter returns to his preferred two turns and could be long gone if closer Balnikhov has trouble extracting himself from the rail.
- The Play: 7 to Win
Race 3: Grade II San Gabriel Stakes (3:03 p.m.)
Masteroffoxhounds and Prince Abama stand out in the 1⅛-mile turf test. Masteroffoxhounds has never been off the board in six starts at Santa Anita and appears to be the controlling speed. Prince Abama, with Flavien Prat in the irons, shouldn’t be too far behind.
- The Plays: 2-6 Exacta Box
Race 6: Grade II San Antonio Stakes (4:32)
The road to the 2023 Santa Anita Handicap begins with this 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds and up. Two-time Grade I winner Country Grammar is the likely favorite, but Heywoods Beach could be ready to spring an upset for trainer John Sadler of Flightline fame.
- The Play: 5 to Win
Race 8: Grade I La Brea Stakes (5:35)
Eight 3-year-old fillies are ready to zip seven furlongs. Four are trained by Baffert, who has won this race eight times. Fun to Dream looks the most attractive among the Bafferts and a stalking trip in a race loaded with speed could be the correct path to the winner’s circle.
- The Play: 6 with 2,3 Doubles; 6 with 2,3 with 4,6 Pick 3s; 6 with 2,3 with 4,6 with 2 Pick 4s