Wednesday December 26th: Race 9 at Santa Anita Park. The $300,000 Grade 1 Malibu Stakes run at seven furlongs on the dirt for three year olds. (Post Time: 7:00 PM EDT).
(6) Axelrod: The barn of trainer Michael McCarthy sends out this very talented son of Warrior’s Reward looking to avenge a lackluster performance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) where he simply was no match for the likes of Accelerate, Gunnevera and Thunder Snow. Today he returns to face similar aged foes in an overflow edition of the Malibu Stakes, which on paper appears to be wide open, so the slight bit of class relief that he will receive certainly should help his chances. Axelrod likely bounced in that Breeders’ Cup Classic (BCC) as not only had he just fired off a career best Bris Speed Rating (BSR) of a 110 (his best speed figure by 11 points) in his Pennsylvania Derby (G1) performance but also it appears that the hot early pace and ten furlong distance proved to be just too much for him. Although, the last time that Axelrod was seen sprinting that was back in May over six and a half furlongs on the turf at Santa Anita, the cutback in distance should be beneficial to him as it appears that he is at his best when racing at elongated sprint or short route distances. Additionally, Axelrod does already own a win over the Santa Anita surface that came in a $40K Optional Claiming race last year (as well as a second place effort in the Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes back in June), so the familiarity with the track could work to his advantage. Furthermore, Axelrod appears to possess an ideal running style given the projected pace scenario for this race.
Axelrod’s preferred running style is actually fairly versatile as not only has he demonstrated excellent tactical speed in a number of his past efforts but also he appears to be equally comfortable stalking the pace both from close up as well as from mid-pack. In fact in all four of his graded stakes efforts prior to the BCC, Axelrod posted Brisnet Late Pace figures of 103, 108, 104, and 107 which rank as the best LP figures amongst the entire field at any distance. Moreover, the TimeForm Pace Projector has indicated a likely fast pace for this race as there appears to be an abundance of runners entered into this field with good early that will probably be positioned on or near the initial lead. With such a favorable pace scenario and given his running style and excellent closing speed, look for Axelrod to be sitting mid-pack early on before moving up to challenge for and hopefully take control of the race as the field turns for home. While Axelrod has not raced in 53 days that should not be of any major concern as not only have both of his last two works been very solid but also over the past three years, McCarthy has been firing at a 20% rate with runners making starts off of layoffs of 46-90 days. Additionally, McCarthy has been winning graded stakes races at a 21% rate during that time period. Although Joe Bravo was not able to make the trip out west to ride, his replacement of John Velazquez is a more than capable rider. Velazquez currently boasts a 19% win rate (50% in the money finishes) when riding in sprints this year. Normally it is not always the wisest decision to side with runners exiting a Breeder’s Cup race and then expect them to perform in their next out start; however, Axelrod appears to have recovered well from his BCC performance and thus I would look for him to move forward today. Axelrod will be the top selection for this race and with Morning Line odds of 10-1, it’s hard to pass on that.
(13) McKinzie: One of five runners that the estimable Bob Baffert has entered, this son of Street Sense is arguably one of the classiest colts in the entire field. When McKinzie returned to racing in September, following a lengthy layoff due to injury, he proved in that Pennsylvania Derby (G1) effort why Baffert had spoken so highly of him in the past. McKinzie made his return to racing look easy in that performance at Parx earning a career best 112 BSR; however, his most recent effort in the BCC was simply abysmal. McKinzie was involved in the pace early on but the blistering initial fractions set by Mendelssohn, the presence of older more seasoned foes and the ten furlong distance likely proved to be too much and he faltered badly towards the end. In addition, it is also quite possible that he bounced coming off of that speed figure earned in the Pennsylvania Derby as it was his best figure by eight points. However, not only will McKinzie be cutting back in distance today but also he should get a bit of class relief taking on other three year olds as opposed to having to face older rivals once again. Moreover, McKinzie now returns to a familiar surface at Santa Anita in which he has finished in the exacta in all three tries, including a win in the Sham Stakes (G3) and a controversial second place via disqualification in the San Felipe Stakes (G2).
McKinzie’s running style is that of a pace-stalker with fairly good early speed but excellent middle to late speed; in fact, his most recent Brisnet E2 pace rating figures are amongst the fastest in the entire field at any distance. Although McKinzie has not sprinted since his first career start when he broke his maiden going seven furlongs, it does appear that he is at his most dangerous when racing either an elongated sprint or short route and thus appears to be a major contender today. Moreover, this field is filled with a multitude of runners that possess very good early speed and will likely want to either be on or near the initial lead, thus potentially leading to swift opening fractions and an ideal pace scenario for a runner like McKinzie. The projected pace scenario along with an outside post draw, should give McKinzie’s jockey, Mike Smith, a number of options as to how he wants to attack this race. Look for him to likely position his mount just off the pace early on before making a move to challenge the leaders for the front as the field turns for home and then try to use his excellent late speed to move past his rivals down the stretch. Over the past three years, Baffert has done exceptionally well with runners in sprint races as he has won 27% of his past 786 starts; moreover, over the past 14 days he has been hot as of late, posting a 9-3-2-2. Additionally, Mike Smith has done quite well this year when riding in sprint races, posting a 24% win rate. Also it needs to be noted that back on December 16th, Baffert worked McKinzie six furlongs over the main track at Santa Anita and he posted a blistering 1:131 final time for that work, so it would appear that he is in fine form heading into this race. If our top selection can’t get the job done, then perhaps McKinzie will return to his winning ways but regardless he should be considered a legitimate contender to hit the board today; however, be aware that given his connections he will most likely be the top betting choice in this race.
(12) Kanthaka: This son of Jimmy Creed makes his return to racing today for the barn of trainer Jerry Hollendorfer following a layoff of over seven months. Kanthaka was last seen rallying from off the pace to win the Laz Barrera Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita back on May 12th. In that effort he earned a paltry 92 BSR (his career best is a 99, earned at today’s distance) so obviously he will have to move forward today in order to be competitive versus this assembled bunch of rivals. However, it appears that Hollendorfer could not have picked a better spot for Kanthaka’s return as not only does this colt love this track (he has finished in the money in all four of his starts here including three wins, two of which came in graded stakes) but also seven furlongs appears to be his ideal distance as all three of his career wins have come at seven panels, all coincidentally at Santa Anita. Additionally, Kanthaka appears to have a favorable running style given the projected pace scenario for this race. If he can fire in his first start off of a very long layoff, then he will likely be a major contender in this race.
Kanthaka’s preferred running style is that of a very versatile pace stalker as not only has he won when rallying from far back but he has also proven that he can sit closer to the pace and win from there as well. This adaptability could play a crucial role in determining how his jockey, Flavien Prat, decides to position him in the early stages of the race, especially given his outside post draw. The TimeForm Pace Projector has indicated a likely fast pace scenario for this race which should allow it to set up quite well for a runner like Kanthaka who will likely be flying late down the stretch trying to pass tiring rivals. Over the past three years, Hollendorfer has done alright with runners returning from layoffs greater than 90 days as he has posted a 16% win rate; however, he has done much better with runners that won their last race as he has won with 21% of his last 740 runners. Additionally, Prat has been riding quite well in sprint races this year winning 20% of his past 218 starts. However, where he really shines is when riding for Hollendorfer as over the past 60 days, Prat has won with 58% of his mounts for the trainer. Furthermore, it should be noted that it appears Hollendorfer has Kanthaka cranked up and ready to fire for this race as not only was his most recent four furlong work on December 22nd incredibly sharp, but he also worked him seven quality furlongs in 1:263 the week before that. While I do have some doubts about just how well Kanthaka will run in his first start back, there is no denying that this colt is an incredibly talented sprinter and that this race should be right in his wheelhouse; thus he should be considered as a logical contender to hit the board today.
When first going through the past performances for this field, it was quite difficult to separate the legitimate contenders from the pretenders as there are a number of runners that all have excellent shots at either winning or at the very least hitting the board today. The projected fast pace scenario suggests that this race should set up quite well for an off the pace type runner and there are a multitude of those in this field, all with quality credentials. However, for an underneath play in this race I’m going to go out on a bit of a limb and take the (4) Still Having Fun, a Maryland-bred son of Old Fashioned trained by Timothy Keefe. Still Having Fun made his name known when he won the seven furlong Woody Stephens Stakes (G2) at Belmont Park back in June but since then he has not had much success; though, his most recent effort in the $250K Steel Valley Sprint Stakes at Mahoning Valley was a fairly solid effort. His career best 104 BSR earned in that Woody Stephens effort certainly makes him competitive versus this field if he can find a way to return to that form. Additionally, he does have fairly good closing speed and has proven himself to be effective when sprinting over seven furlongs. Kent Desormeaux (18% win rate in sprints this year) will ride for the first time and Still Having Fun’s two most recent works were quite solid and suggest that he could be in good form coming into this race. This intriguing colt is 20-1 on the Morning Line and his odds are likely to drift even higher by post time which could result in a nice payoff for any of his backers should he hit the board today.