The $1 million Santa Anita Handicap long has been one of the biggest days of the season in Southern California racing. Some early race history was portrayed in the movie “Seabiscuit” in which his final race was a comeback win in the 1940 Big Cap.
There is melancholy looking back at last year’s win by Shared Belief. It was his last win, as the champion died in December after a bout of colic.
This year’s version may not have a Seabiscuit or Shared Belief-type animal, but for $1 million, nine well-matched horses will take a swing Saturday. The Big Cap headlines an exciting day at Santa Anita, at which the Kilroe Mile, San Felipe and San Carlos stakes also are on the undercard.
The Big Cap favorite is Effinex (2-1), who is shipping in from Florida for trainer Jimmy Jerkens. His past two starts to end 2015 were terrific. He won the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs in a gritty decision over Hoppertunity. Before that, he was second in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to eventual Horse of the Year American Pharoah.
Next are Donworth (3-1) and Imperative (3-1), who both lost to Hoppertunity last out in the San Antonio. Even though Hoppertunity won the Big Cap prep, he now is sidelined because of injury.
The 1¼-mile distance is a seldom-used distance even for top handicap horses. So pedigree, stamina and class are usually key factors. I like Donworth, Effinex and Imperative in the Big Cap.
Two Kentucky Derby preps on Saturday — the Tampa Bay Derby and San Felipe — are offering 50 points to the winner. The San Felipe drew a strong field of seven headed by Mor Spirit, who won the Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita last time out. Mor Spirit did have his training briefly interrupted in mid-February, but has two sharp workouts since.
His main foe could be Exaggerator, who ran a game second to Nyquist in the San Vicente. He is a Curlin colt who should improve as the races get longer.
Another key contender is Cal-bred Smokey Image, who is undefeated in six starts. This will be a test for class facing open company for the first time. In the San Felipe, I like Smokey Image, Exaggerator and Mor Spirit.
The top three horses in the Kilroe Mile hardly can be separated in Om, Bal a Bali and Bolo. Whoever gets the best trip could decide it.
Om will go down in history as the only horse to defeat American Pharoah. But since switching to turf, he has carved out an even better resume.
Bal a Bali was the 2014 Horse of the Year in Brazil and shows a powerful late kick on turf.
Bolo won the Arcadia last out, the local prep for the Kilroe. He ran a career-best speed figure to beat Obviously and Om.
Om ran a bit flat in the Arcadia, but I look for him to rebound by taking advantage of a perfect rail post at one mile. My choices in the Kilroe are Om, Bal a Bali and Bolo.
The Tampa Bay Derby is loaded with early speed, so it should help to be a stalker or closer type. My picks are Destin (9-2), Rafting (6-1), Brody’s Cause (5-2) and Economic Model (5-1).
Richard Eng’s horse racing column is published Friday in the Las Vegas Review-Journal. To get his Santa Anita picks, email him at email@example.com. Follow on Twitter: @richeng4propick