Although most of the attention at Santa Anita this time of year is focused on three-year-olds and Kentucky Derby prep races, the upcoming Saturday card is a bit different, aimed at showcasing older mares on both dirt and turf.
The 6.5-furlong $100,000 Las Cienegas Stakes (gr. III) over the unique downhill turf course is first on the agenda, and will be followed two hours later by the 8.5-furlong $100,000 La Canada Stakes (gr. III) on the main track.
I think both races look rather appealing from a handicapping perspective, so let’s ponder some of the possibilities….
Race 6 (3:00 p.m. Pacific): Las Cienegas Stakes (gr. III)
#4 Belvoir Bay has been a beast over the downhill turf course at Santa Anita, compiling a near-perfect 4-for-5 record while scoring three straight wins in the Mizdirection Stakes, San Simeon Stakes (gr. III), and Monrovia Stakes (gr. II) last spring—she even beat males in the San Simeon. There’s no reason to think that this Peter Miller-trained filly isn’t the horse to beat in the Las Cienegas, especially considering that her most recent run yielded a game runner-up effort in the Buffalo Trace Franklin County Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland.
Still, victory might not be a given. #9 Painting Corners has also been very effective sprinting down the hill; in fact, she won an allowance race over this course by 2 ½ lengths in October, and she followed up with a terrific runner-up effort in the Senator Ken Maddy Stakes (gr. III), in which she carved out blazing fractions of :20.92 and :42.39 before settling for second place in a race dominated for the most part by closers.
To me, this looks like the perfect opportunity to play a hefty exacta boxing Belvoir Bay and Painting Corners:
$15 exacta: 4,9 with 4,9 ($30)
Race 8 (4:00 p.m. Pacific): La Canada Stakes (gr. III)
This is not your typical two-turn graded stakes race for fillies and mares. More than half of the seven entrants are infrequent winners with generally uninspiring form—#1 Exuberance hasn’t won since October 2017, #2 Stardella Road has never run on dirt, #3 Lemoona was soundly beaten in her two previous stakes tries, and #5 Bernina Star is just 3-for-22 in her career, though she did finish a distant third in the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes (gr. I) last summer.
In contrast, #6 Escape Clause has been a winning machine with 16 victories from 23 starts on dirt, including eight straight wins between June and October. Granted, she compiled that win streak against much easier competition at Assiniboia, Canterbury Park, Northlands Park, and Century Downs, which makes it all the more remarkable that she won the one-mile Kathryn Crosby Stakes at Del Mar in November while stepping up sharply in class and switching to turf!
Escape Clause proved that her Kathryn Crosby effort was no fluke by coming back to finish a close third in the Red Carpet Handicap (gr. III) going 1 3/8 miles and fourth in the Robert J. Frankel Stakes (gr. III) going 1 1/8 miles, both on grass. The return to dirt for the La Canada should be no issue, and she’s catching a field with very little in the way of early speed, so the speed Escape Clause has displayed on dirt should help her work out a perfect trip setting or stalking a modest pace. They’ll have to catch her to beat her, and quite frankly, I don’t think they will.
#7 K P Wildcat, another frequent winner stepping up to the big leagues off a series of fine efforts in New Mexico, fits well here in terms of BRIS speed figures and can’t be counted out, while #4 True Royalty could rebound from a couple of recent sprinting defeats while stretching back out around two turns. Remember, True Royalty was a decisive winner of the one-mile Torrey Pines Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar during the summer, and for the La Canada she’ll pick up the services of top jockey Joel Rosario.