12/30/2009 12:00AM

Santa Anita roundup

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NOTEWORTHY PERFORMANCES

The "Chalk of the Week" award is shared by Sir Beaufort winner The Usual Q.T. ($2.80) and maiden-claiming winner Bullfighter ($2.60). Another perfect trip by The Usual Q.T. resulted in his sixth straight, an easy victory Dec. 26 at a mile on turf. Jim Cassidy trains The Usual Q.T., whose tactical speed and finish makes him a top contender - possibly the favorite - in the $300,000 Sunshine Millions Turf on Jan. 30 at Gulfstream Park.

As for Dec. 27 winner Bullfighter, Bob Baffert said, "I have never trained a 6-year-old maiden." Baffert's record remains intact, because Bullfighter was only 5 when he won the $25,000 maiden claimer by seven lengths under Baffert's latest favorite rider, Martin Garcia.

"You can get a price on [Garcia]," Baffert said, adding that Bullfighter "should have paid $2.10." As of Dec. 29, Garcia and Baffert were 9 for their last 19.

Four others opening weekend started at even-money. Ace of Aces was the lone winner in a mile turf race Dec. 27 for 2-year-old maidens. The washouts were closer Bestdressed, runner-up Dec. 27 in a N2X sprint; Made for Magic, too close to a fast pace and second-best in a N2X filly-mare route Dec. 28; and Uffizi, keen setting the pace in a $40,000 turf claimer before finishing third Dec. 28.

This week's "Most Likely Repeater" award goes to Baffert-trained, Garcia-ridden Ventana, who raced over his conditions Dec. 27 in a second-level allowance sprint. Eligible to a N1X, he sat second behind a hot pace, cruised to the lead into the lane, and won by a half-length with a 91 Beyer. Perfect-trip winners are often overplayed, but Ventana is still eligible to N2X. If he runs back at the level, he will be tough.

The "Jackpot of the Week" award goes to Siberian Heart, whose $22.40 payoff Dec. 28 in race 5 was the highest on opening weekend. Handicappers who watched video of the 2-year-old filly's previous start would have considered her a contender in the one-mile maiden-40 starter. The trouble-prone filly drifted out badly last time and ended up in the middle of the track. Jockey Alonso Quinonez kept her tucked inside this time; she did not drift and won by a neck over no-excuse 6-5 favorite Victory Dash.

DIVISIONAL RANKINGS

The Grade 1 highlights of the winter meet are the Santa Anita Derby for 3-year-olds April 3 and the Santa Anita Handicap for older horses March 6. This weekly ranking will identify 10 top contenders for each race; the list will fluctuate as circumstances warrant.

Santa Anita Derby

1. Lookin at Lucky, 2. Noble's Promise, 3. Blind Luck, 4. Who's Up, 5. Conveyance, 6. Make Music for Me, 7. Tiz Chrome, 8. Sidney's Candy, 9. American Lion, 10. Clutch Player

Blind Luck (No. 3), a filly, is included because her Hollywood Starlet romp was the top two-turn performance this year by a California 2-year-old. However, Blind Luck's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, has not indicated she will step outside her division to face boys. The Santa Anita and Kentucky Oaks are the main goals for Blind Luck. Who's Up (No. 4) is a graded stakes winner on turf expected to switch to the main track this winter, while Sidney's Candy (No. 8) could be upgraded pending his return scheduled for Dec. 30.

Baffert trains four of the top 10; his Dec. 26 debut winner Concord Point earned a 94 Beyer and is bubbling under the surface. John Sadler-trained Dave in Dixie posted the first workout of comeback on Dec. 27; California Breeders' Champion Stakes winner Caracortado is 4 for 4 against non-graded company.

Santa Anita Handicap

1. Misremembered, 2. Richard's Kid, 3. Mast Track, 4. Papa Clem, 5. High Court Drama, 6. Dakota Phone, 7. Chocolate Candy, 8. Blue Chagall, 9. Quindici Man, 10. Neko Bay

This messy list does not include the best older horse in California, but as soon as Gio Ponti returns to serious training he could slip into the top spot. Trainer Bob Baffert indicated Richard's Kid (No. 2) is likely to run in the Dubai World Cup instead of the Big Cap. Blue Chagall (No. 8) is a turf horse who could switch to the main track for the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 9; Quindici Man (No. 9) recently won the $150,000 Zia Park Derby and is aiming to the Grade 2 San Fernando Stakes Jan. 10. The only thing certain about the Big Cap list is that it will change often.

WHO'S HOT

Chantal Sutherland made a California splash during the 2007-08 Santa Anita winter meet by winning 16 races, including seven for trainer Barry Abrams. The combo picked up where it left off. Sutherland rode two for Abrams opening weekend, winning both maiden claimers with rail trips - The Town Lady ($10) and Party With Brando ($14.80).

Victor Espinoza has emerged from an autumn funk and reestablished himself as one of the circuit's top riders. Espinoza won 10 of 102 during the fall Oak Tree meet, a slump for which his longtime agent, Tony Matos, takes responsibility. The first three days at Santa Anita, Matos put Espinoza on nothing but live mounts, and Espinoza delivered by winning 5 of 13, including stakes on The Usual Q.T., Macias and Evening Jewel.

WHO'S NOT

The Grade 2 San Gabriel Handicap on Dec. 27 exposed Loup Breton as overrated and Lava Man as over the hill. Loup Breton was bet to 7-5 based on a perfect-trip allowance win in his U.S. debut in which he was flattered by fast pace. Unfortunately, the fractions of the mile and an eighth San Gabriel were slow. Loup Breton ran his final three furlongs in 34-and-change but fell short by a neck to Proudinsky, a Grade 2-caliber horse in a sorry turf division. Loup Breton is not a bad horse, nor is he as good as his reputation.

Lava Man was making his first start in 17 months; bettors were not fooled. Lava Man was let loose at 7.20-1, coasted on an easy pace (48.14 and 1:11.81) and was done at the head of the lane. He came back with blood splattered on both ankles after possibly kicking the gate, and clearly is not the same horse that earned $5 million.

Lava Man should be retired, once and for all. However, trainer Doug O'Neill told Daily Racing Form's Steve Andersen, "I don't want to react to the boo birds." O'Neill indicated Lava Man may run again in January. How sad. Legions of racing fans that once cheered the gelding only hope Lava Man is not embarrassed in 2010 at the ripe age of 9.

TRACK BIAS, SYNTHETIC NUANCES

The perpetual fluctuations of Santa Anita's synthetic surface will be a meet-long struggle for handicappers, as illustrated on opening weekend. Despite uniform weather, the main track changed radically day to day.

The main track opening day, Dec. 26, was fair but sped up drastically for the second day of the meet Dec. 27. Don't believe it? The $16,000 claimer Spot the Diplomat raced six furlongs in 1:08.36, and first-start 3-year-old Irrefutable raced six furlongs in 1:08.25. One day later, on Monday, Dec. 28, the track slowed and mostly favored closers.

Two-turn front-runners took it on the chin all three days. None of the six route races was won by the pacesetter, but three of the 12 sprints were won on the front end.

HORSES TO WATCH

Gallant Son

Trainer: Frank Lucarelli

Last race: Dec. 26, 7th

Finish: 2nd by 1

In his first start following an eight-month layoff, this stakes-winning 3-year-old of 2009 turned in a super comeback in the Grade 3 Sir Beaufort at a mile on turf. Void of speed while three and four wide, he finished well behind odds-on winner The Usual Q.T. Gallant Son ran his final quarter in 22-and-change and enters the meet fresh and poised for a big winter.

Good Measure

Trainer: Carla Gaines

Last race: Dec. 27, 6th

Finish: 3rd by 1 1/2

A first-time starter bet to 4-1 from 8-1 in the program, this 3-year-old of 2009 by Maria's Mon stamped himself as a likely next-out winner with a solid debut. He was not quick from the rail, moved up to joined the front-runners fourth on the rail, was kept under a hold saving ground, was blocked into the lane, found a seam late, and finished evenly. The half-brother to Grade 1-winning filly Meadow Breeze will be tough to beat against older maidens in late January.

Zappa

Trainer: John Sadler

Last race: Dec. 27, 5th

Finish: 2nd by 1/2

This veteran stakes winner will be eight years old in 2010 but showed he still has run with a good runner-up finish in a restricted $32,000 claimer. The mile turf race was won by front-runner Polonius. Zappa rallied from ninth, was eating into the winner's margin late, and galloped out in front. A 13-for-50 veteran, Zappa has not won since December 2008, but he still has ability and only needs a favorable pace scenario to set up his closing run.

Albany Road

Trainer: Christophe Clemente

Last race: Dec. 27, 9th

Finish: 6th by 2 3/4

A 2-year-old maiden turning 3 in 2010, this colt may have been too close to the pace while adding blinkers in a mile turf race. He chased front-running winner Ace of Aces to the eighth pole before being swallowed in an effort that was better than it looked. The son of Mr. Greeley can show his best next out at 1 1/8 miles if he settles early.