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    Horse racing: Santa Anita stars have more to give this year
    • June 14, 2024

    ARCADIA — It began as the gift you open the day after Christmas and ends Sunday as a gift that will keep on giving.

    Though far from the finest Santa Anita meet ever, it unwrapped performances that whet the appetite for the second half of the Southern California thoroughbred racing year, featuring the Del Mar summer season that begins in July, the inaugural California Crown at Santa Anita in September and the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar in November.

    Here’s a look back at some of the impressive, appealing and promising horses of the past 5½ months, and a look ahead to when we can hope to see them next.

    Anisette and jockey Umberto Rispoli were the Santa Anita meet’s first Grade I stakes winners in the American Oaks on Dec. 26 and returned to outclass a strong field in a highly rated running of the Grade I Gamely on May 27. Next for the 4-year-old, British-bred filly could be the Aug. 10 Yellow Ribbon Handicap at Del Mar. Trainer Leonard Powell’s goal is the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf on Nov. 2.

    Muth jumped from his Jan. 6 San Vicente Stakes victory with Juan Hernandez to an Arkansas Derby win that tied Bob Baffert stablemate Nysos’ Feb. 3 Robert Lewis Stakes romp with Flavien Prat for the highest Equibase speed figure by a North American 3-year-old in 2024. Baffert is pointing Muth for the July 20 Haskell at Monmouth Park, while Nysos remains out of training.

    Stronghold and Antonio Fresu put trainer Phil D’Amato on the national stage with a gritty win in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6 and a solid seventh in the Kentucky Derby. The colt will cut back to 1⅛ miles for the Haskell.

    Three-year-old prospects kept blooming through the spring, including Vlahos (a debut win, then a third in the Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs to Preakness winner Seize the Grey), Tapalo (won a fast Laz Barrera Stakes), Parenting (2 for 2 after his Affirmed Stakes runaway) and Eagles Flight (Flightline’s full brother, impressive first time out).

    Newgate’s photo-finish win in the March 3 Santa Anita Handicap, and jockey Frankie Dettori’s joyous reaction, was a reminder that the Big ’Cap still matters. Mr Fisk’s May 27 Hollywood Gold Cup win with Kazushi Kimura completed a Baffert sweep of the handicap division. Newgate is freshening after running ninth in the Dubai World Cup, and Mr Fisk is “healing well” after surgery on a condylar fracture in his right foreleg, Baffert said this week.

    The Chosen Vron began defense of his 2023 California-bred Horse of the Year title by going 4 for 4 in stakes, his win in the April 27 Kona Gold with Hector Berrios earning the fourth-highest Equibase figure by a sprinter in 2024. Trainer Eric Kruljac is aiming the 6-year-old gelding for a repeat win in the Grade I Bing Crosby at Del Mar on July 27, and another crack at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Nov. 2.

    Happy Jack, close second to The Chosen Vron in the Kona Gold, came back to go gate to wire with Edwin Maldonado in the Triple Bend at 6-1 odds on June 1. Trainer Doug O’Neill is looking at the Bing Crosby and a future in sprints for the 2022 Kentucky Derby hopeful.

    Musical Rhapsody, the mighty-mite 5-year-old mare from Ireland, gave Mike Smith and D’Amato a memorable Santa Barbara Stakes win on May 11. Now she’ll try to avenge a string of defeats against Linda’s Gift when they meet in Saturday’s Possibly Perfect.

    Grand Slam Smile, the super-game 3-year-old filly, joined The Chosen Vron as a Cal-bred feel-good story by winning the Melair Stakes with Frank Alvarado on May 25 for Steve Specht, one of the veteran Bay Area trainers suffering from Golden Gate Fields’ closure. Now 4 for 4 on trips down to Santa Anita, Grand Slam Smile can try to conquer Del Mar in the July 26 Fleet Treet.

    Adare Manor and Hernandez went to Arkansas for a high-rated win in the Apple Blossom, and then continued the 5-year-old mare’s dominance in the California distaff division by scoring a repeat in the Santa Margarita at 1-20 odds on May 26. Baffert is eyeing another repeat in the Clement Hirsch at Del Mar on Aug. 3.

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    Sugar Fish stumbles into stakes win at Santa Anita

    Sugar Fish and Tyler Baze won in eye-catching style in the June 8 Summertime Oaks. Recovering from a stumbling start, Sugar Fish won by 9¾ lengths. It was a career microcosm for the 3-year-old filly who was running for a $40,000 claiming tag when she started her three-race win streak for trainer Jeff Mullins. Next: another main-track stakes, preferably at Del Mar.

    The claiming ranks produced some endearing horses. Recent $50,000 claimer Johnny Podres, the Cal-bred named for the Brooklyn Dodgers strikeout pitcher, caught bettors looking by winning at 5-2, 5-1 and then 16-1 and becoming a stakes winner for the first time at age 7. Irish Wahine, a 5-year-old Cal-bred mare, won five times in eight starts while being claimed for $12,500, $10,000 and then $20,000.

    The stars keep coming out on closing week. Thursday, the 2-year-old filly Nooni, a daughter of Win Win Win auctioned for $1.8 million in March, debuted for Baffert and won by 9½ lengths under Hernandez.

    It’s on to Los Alamitos for a three-week meet starting next Saturday, June 22, and then Del Mar beginning Saturday, July 20, presenting the next challenges for this Santa Anita season’s biggest winners.

    Follow horse racing correspondent Kevin Modesti at

    ​ Orange County Register