Photo: Benoit Photo
Finest City attempts to successfully negotiate the longest distance she’s ever traveled on dirt in Saturday’s Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes for older fillies and mares at a mile and an eighth.
She’ll have to conquer streaking Vale Dori while she’s at it. The five-year-old Argentine-bred mare trained by Bob Baffert has won three straight Grade II events, and four races in a row, all on or close to the lead and all by daylight margins.
Trainer Ian Kruljac feels Finest City is up to the task, even though the five-year-old daughter of City Zip is coming off two seven furlong victories and has never run further than one mile on dirt, finishing third behind champions Beholder and Stellar Wind in the Grade I Vanity Mile at Santa Anita last June.
Finest City would go on to win the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint at Santa Anita on Nov. 5 and earn an Eclipse Award as best in her division.
“We’ll be close to the pace, but if she wants to be on the lead, she will be,” said Ian, 28-year-old son of trainer Eric Kruljac. “If (supplemental entry) Perfect Pic wants to go, I’m sure we’ll let her go.
“Hopefully, we’re the fastest horse in the race at the end of it.”
Finest City has been ridden by Mike Smith in her last two races, but with the Hall of Fame jockey at Oaklawn Park Saturday to ride Sham Stakes runner-up American Anthem in the Rebel Stakes, Kruljac has Tyler Baze back on Finest City.
Baze has ridden her twice, finishing a distant second in an overnight race at Los Alamitos in December of 2015 and third in the Vanity.
Owned by Seltzer Thoroughbreds, Finest City came into her own late last year, following her seven furlong Breeders’ Cup victory at 8-1 with a comfortable 3 ¾-length win Jan. 21 in the Grade II Santa Monica Stakes, also at seven furlongs, as the 2-5 favorite.
Overall, the chestnut mare bred in Pennsylvania has a 5-4-2 record with earnings of $1,045,594.
“She’s been more than a surprise,” Kruljac said. “She’s been a blessing.”
The field for the Santa Margarita, race nine of 10: Autumn Flower, Martin Pedroza; Vale Dori, Rafael Bejarano; Finest City, Tyler Baze; Show Stealer, Kent Desormeaux; Lady Tapit, Mario Gutierrez; Perfect Pic, Santiago Gonzalez; Wild At Heart, Flavien Prat; and Estrechada, Stewart Elliott.
Jon White’s morning line for Saturday’s Grade I Santa Margarita from the rail out: Autumn Flower (20-1), Vale Dori (9-5), Finest City (8-5), Show Stealer (8-1), Lady Tapit (20-1), Perfect Pic (5-1), Wild At Heart (6-1) and Estrechada (15-1).
TEAM O’NEILL EYES ST. PATRICK’S DAY CELEBRATION
What could be more fitting than a trainer named O’Neill winning a race called the Irish O’Brien in honor of St. Patrick’s Day?
Which is why Doug O’Neill is optimistic that Smoove It can capture Saturday’s $100,000 Irish O’Brien Stakes restricted to horses bred or sired in California for the second straight year. The six-year-old Square Eddie mare won the race in 2016 by 3 ¼ lengths.
The Irish O’Brien is run over Santa Anita’s unique downhill turf course at about 6 ½ furlongs, where Smoove It has found a home, boasting a 3-2-2 record from nine starts over the layout for owner Reddam Racing, LLC.
“She’s the defending champ and she drew well,” O’Neill said, alluding to her number seven post position. “She’s doing well, but Enola Gray, who just beat her (in the Sunshine Millions Filly and Mare Turf on Jan. 28) is in there and she looks pretty tough.
“The field is loaded with talent but we’re very happy with the way Smoove It is going into it and we definitely think this is her preferred surface.”
As to a pending celebration should Smoove It win the Irish O’Brien, O’Neill said, “We’ll be drinking green beer after the big effort.”
The Irish O’Brien, which goes as race seven: Chaulk O Lattey, Rafael Bejarano; Roo’s Valentine, Martin Pedroza; Enola Gray, Tyler Baze; Desert Steel, Flavien Prat; Lily Kai, Stewart Elliott; Bert’s Melody, Brice Blanc; Smoove It, Mario Gutierrez; Cuddle Alert, Corey Nakatani; Emmy and I, Joe Talamo; and Late ‘n Left, Edwin Maldonado.
MULHALL/PEDROZA COMBO TEAM IN SATURDAY’S IRISH O’BRIEN
Trainer Kristin Mulhall and jockey Martin Pedroza are hoping the Luck of the Irish is with them on Saturday, as they team-up with Roo’s Valentine in the $100,000 Irish O’Brien Stakes, for older fillies and mares bred or sired in California at 6 ½ furlongs down the hillside turf course.
A 4-year-old filly by Vronsky, Roo’s Valentine, who is owned by her breeder, Kretz Racing, LLC, tried the hillside turf for the first time on Feb. 10.Breaking from the rail with open company in a second condition allowance that attracted a field of nine, she was dispatched at 24-1 and prevailed by a half length after pressing the early pace.
“Six and a half wasn’t really the game plan,” said Pedroza’s longtime agent, Richie Silverstein.“Kristin was looking for anything from six and a half to a mile.Martin rode her like she was four to five and it worked out.”
A trainer/rider combination to be reckoned with on the tough Southern California circuit, Silverstein attributes their success to several factors, including good timing and hard work.
“We’ve always enjoyed riding for Kristin,” he said.“She always been there for us.A couple years ago at the Del Mar Fall Meet, most of her help was up here, at Santa Anita, and she needed some help with her horses down there.Kristin starts at 5 a.m. and Martin was there to get the horses out.He’d get on three or four before the first break…He knows her horses and he knows what she wants.We try to ride whatever Kristin has for us.”
A one-time stakes winner versus state-breds at age two, Roo’s Valentine, who has an overall mark of 13-4-2-4, with earnings of $255,555, rates a big chance as a sharp horse breaking from post position two in Saturday’s 10-horse Irish O’Brien.
RANCHO CUCAMONGA MAN WON $1 MILLION ST. PAT’S PITCH NINE YEARS AGO
With the return of the $1 million St. Pat’s Pitch here on Saturday, memories harken back to a special moment in Santa Anita history, when John Placzankis, a 41-year-old warehouse manager from Rancho Cucamonga, electrified an on-track crowd of 15,660 with a million dollar ringer on March 15, 2008.
“The drinks are on me,” bellowed Placzankis from Santa Anita’s main track.“I barely got the entry in on time.I’m a big Duke (basketball) fan and I lost money on them today.I was watching the game and I wasn’t thinking about the contest…I was just trying to relax.I’m pretty calm and I was actually just trying to throw it like a softball…and I didn’t want to go over the line.I probably hadn’t done it in like 30 years.”
A native of New Rochelle, New York, Placzankis was thinking of family in the aftermath of his million dollar toss.
“I’ll pay some bills and take care of my nieces and nephews…I’m also going to take care of my mom back home.”
Registration forms for Saturday’s $1 Million Dollar St. Pat’s Pitch will be available, free of charge, on-track.A total of five finalists will be randomly selected.Four of them will be from those submitted on-track and one finalist will be selected via online signup, at santaanita.com/events.
FINISH LINES: Bob Baffert, reached by text this morning, reports Grade II San Felipe winner Mastery, who underwent surgery to repair a condylar fracture to his left front ankle on Monday at Santa Anita, stated:“He came out of surgery fine and he looks good.”…Get Well wishes go out to our own Ed Golden, who has been dealing with the effects of Benign Positional Vertigo for the past week…With “Big Money” Mike Smith out of town to ride Baffert’s American Anthem in Saturday’s Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Baffert has enlisted Rafael Bejarano to ride Vale Dori in Saturday’s Grade I Santa Margarita Stakes. Smith had ridden the Argentine-bred mare to three consecutive graded stakes victories; the Grade II Bayakoa at Del Mar on Dec. 3, the Grade II La Canada here on Jan. 14 and the Grade II Santa Maria on Feb. 11.Prior to getting injured, Bejarano had guided her to two wins from four tries...While Team O’Neill’s Smoove It is the defending champ in Saturday’s $100,000 Irish O’Brien, trainer Sean McCarthy’s Bert’s Melody, who’s been idle since winning the one mile turf Fran’s Valentine here on May 28, was a close fourth beaten one length, in the 2015 O’Brien. A 6-year-old mare by Bertrando, Bert’s Melody is owned by her breeders, Mr. and Mrs. John Barr’s Oakcrest Stable…Jon White’s morning line for Saturday’s Grade I Santa Margarita from the rail out: Autumn Flower (20-1), Vale Dori (9-5), Finest City (8-5), Show Stealer (8-1), Lady Tapit (20-1), Perfect Pic (5-1), Wild At Heart (6-1) and Estrechada (15-1).
Source: Santa Anita Park