02/05/2015 12:36PM

Crist: Older division hits the ground running


The quality and star power of Saturday’s San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita and Donn Handicap at Gulfstream are unusually strong for the first Saturday of February. It’s a welcome early start to what could be a memorable year for racing’s older dirt males.

We already know it’s a robust group. Last year’s 3-year-olds dominated a weak division of older males, running first through sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and beating their elders in races such as the Awesome Again, Clark, Jockey Club Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic.

Now, the big four at the head of that strong class – Bayern, California Chrome, Shared Belief, and Tonalist – are all coming back to the races as 4-year-olds. In addition to sorting things out among themselves, they will have to deal with much stronger older horses than they did last year, especially if Palace Malice and Lea are over the problems that sidelined them for a significant amount of time last year.

We’ll get Rounds 1 and 1a on Saturday, and a two-hour Jockey Club Tour on FOX 1 telecast to showcase them. (The broadcast runs from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, with the Donn slated to go at 5:58 p.m. and the San Antonio an hour later.)

:: DONN HANDICAP: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

At Santa Anita, California Chrome and Shared Belief will face off for the first time since running third and fourth in the Classic on Nov. 1. California Chrome was subsequently voted the Horse of the Year, an honor Shared Belief instead would have garnered had he won the Classic instead of finishing a tough-trip fourth. Since then, each horse finished his 2014 season by winning a Grade 1 race doing something a little different from his usual dirt routing: California Chrome switched surfaces to take the Hollywood Derby on turf Nov. 29, and then Shared Belief shortened up to win the seven-furlong Malibu on Dec. 26, running his record to eight victories in nine career starts.

:: SAN ANTONIO: Get PPs, watch Saturday’s card live

There are three other millionaires in the San Antonio field of nine, but this has the feel of a match race. California Chrome should be right on or near the lead, with Shared Belief fairly close in a field without much early speed.

At Gulfstream, the Donn is a chance for Lea to re-establish himself as a championship contender. He looked like one in winning last year’s Donn, defeating Will Take Charge and earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 114. He was sidelined for 11 months thereafter, but the 6-year-old looked like he was back to his old self in winning the Hal’s Hope in his return Jan. 10. Lea spent most of his first two years on the track running in grass races, then turned into a different horse when belatedly switched to dirt a year ago.

He’ll have to turn back three uncoupled, well-bred, Todd Pletcher-trained 4-year-olds who are short on experience but long on potential: Commissioner (by A.P. Indy), beaten just a head by Tonalist in last year’s Belmont Stakes; Constitution (by Tapit), last year’s Florida Derby winner; and Protonico (by Giant’s Causeway), second in the Clark Handicap last fall.

The Donn and San Antonio are both part of stakes-rich cards with generally big fields that should make this an attractive day of handicapping and wagering. At Gulfstream, there are 13 races, six of them stakes, including four graded ones to conclude the program: the Grade 3 Suwannee River, the Grade 3 Fred W. Hooper, the Grade 1 Gulfstream Park Turf, and the Donn. At Santa Anita, the San Antonio goes as the eighth of nine races on a card that also features the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis as the fifth and the Grade 2 San Marcos as the seventh.

It’s a great way to start off what might be a special year of racing, and it raises the question of why racing can’t organize itself along the same lines on the first weekend of every month, with national broadcast coverage and a sense of a coherent schedule. Some sort of regularly scheduled wager linking the day’s major events also would be welcome.

For now, though, these two races are enough to jump-start the season. California Chrome vs. Shared Belief is about as good as the first Saturday of February can get.