January 24, 2021

Charlatan returns versus Nashville in superb Malibu

Charlatan romps in a Santa Anita allowance (Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com)

Racing fans will still be opening their presents, so to speak, on Saturday, as Santa Anita’s blockbuster opening day card features six stakes. Topping them all is a vintage renewal of the $300,000 Malibu Stakes (G1), pitting onetime Kentucky Derby (G1) favorites Charlatan and Independence Hall against a new sprint phenom in Nashville. Their respective trainers are also well represented in the companion stakes for fillies, the $300,000 La Brea Stakes (G1).

Malibu Stakes – Race 10 (6:30 p.m. ET)

Charlatan announced himself as a prime player among Bob Baffert’s army of classic contenders in the spring. After crushing his first two starts at Santa Anita by a combined margin of 16 lengths, the chestnut booked his Derby ticket with another front-running romp in a division of the May 2 Arkansas Derby (G1). But Charlatan then suffered a double blow – disqualification for a positive postrace test at Oaklawn, spoiling his perfect record, and reportedly minor filling in an ankle that ended his Derby hopes.

Sidelined for more than seven months, Charlatan now hopes to pick up right where he left off, and cross the wire in front.

“Charlatan is doing really well,” Baffert told Santa Anita publicity. “You can only do so much coming off a layoff going seven-eighths…

“He’s healthy and that’s the main thing; he should run well.”

Mike Smith picks up the mount aboard Charlatan in post 4.

While Charlatan is shortening up to 7 furlongs for his comeback, unbeaten speedster Nashville – a fellow son of Speightstown – steps up a tad in trip in his first Grade 1 test. The Steve Asmussen pupil didn’t debut until Sept. 2, but the word was out as the 3-10 favorite demolished a Saratoga maiden by 11 1/2 lengths.

Nashville again spread-eagled the field in a second-level Keeneland allowance, and blitzed to a new track record in the Perryville on Breeders’ Cup Friday. His 6-furlong mark in 1:07.89 was faster than the following day’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint (1:08.61). The speed of the speed has yet to be headed, and figures to blaze away from post 3 with Ricardo Santana.

Independence Hall brings the opposite career trajectory, as a former leading juvenile who’s looking to reassert himself. A year after his stunning Nashua (G3) victory, it’s easy to forget that the Constitution colt was an unbeaten Derby favorite at one point.

Overturned as the 7-10 favorite in the Sam F. Davis (G3), and only fifth in the Florida Derby (G1), Independence Hall was freshened with a view toward late-season targets at a more suitable trip. He switched from Mike Trombetta to Michael McCarthy, and made a successful West Coast debut in a Nov. 8 Del Mar allowance. New pilot Joel Rosario can observe developments from the outside post 6.

Baffert’s other runner, Thousand Words, had a rollercoaster ride on the Triple Crown trail. From highs in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) and Robert B. Lewis (G3), he lost his way, but found it anew to win the Shared Belief. Thousand Words made it to the Churchill Downs paddock for the Kentucky Derby, only to be scratched when flipping over in the saddling process. He was remarkably unscathed and able to try his luck in the Preakness (G1), where he faded to eighth. Cutting back in distance could help since his dam is multiple Grade 2-winning sprinter Pomeroys Pistol, and he gets John Velazquez.

Express Train was a promising juvenile for John Shirreffs, and appeared to be the type to develop on the Derby trail. Unfortunately, his Triple Crown nomination was in vain as he missed the bulk of the season. A late-closing comeback win in a Del Mar allowance, followed by a decent second to Extra Hope (who runs in the San Antonio [G2]) here, boded well. His turf tilt in the Twilight Derby (G2) didn’t pan out though, so now he reverts to one turn on the main. Juan Hernandez gets the call aboard the intriguing type who will get loads of pace.

Collusion Illusion, always pegged as a sprint specialist, scored his signature win over elders in the Aug. 1 Bing Crosby (G1). Life has been tougher since for the Mark Glatt trainee, who placed third in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G2) and checked in 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Collusion Illusion’s task isn’t helped by carrying top weight of 124 pounds.

La Brea Stakes – Race 8 (5:30 p.m. ET)

If not as riveting a head-to-head as in the Malibu, the La Brea also offers an Asmussen versus Baffert dynamic. Finite, once prominent on the Kentucky Oaks (G1) trail for Asmussen, must deal with a quartet from the Baffert barn.

The winner of five straight last fall and winter, highlighted by the Golden Rod (G2) and Rachel Alexandra (G2), Finite saw her streak snapped when fourth in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). The Munnings filly underwent ankle surgery afterward, but has been back in business of late. Just missing in her second start off the layoff in the Raven Run (G2), Finite rolled in the Nov. 21 Chilukki (G3) and promises to keep her momentum going.

Two of the Baffert fillies are by American Pharoah – Merneith, the Santa Anita Oaks (G2) third who’s won two straight sprinting including the Nov. 7 Fort Springs at Keeneland, and late-developing Himiko, a half-sister to Bodemeister who followed up her maiden score with a Del Mar allowance romp. Golden Principal, second to Merneith two back, has since cleared her entry-level allowance condition over a mile, while Provocation exits a distant third to Himiko.

Yet another contender, Stellar Sound, was formerly with Baffert. Transferred to McCarthy following a third in the Feb. 8 Las Virgenes (G2), the Tapit blueblood aired in her return at Santa Anita from an eight-month vacation, but regressed to third in the Dec. 6 Bayakoa (G3) at Los Alamitos.

Chad Brown’s Motivated Seller, just denied by Merneith in the Fort Springs, arguably brings more upside into their rematch. The Into Mischief filly had won her two prior starts by daylight, and perhaps a lack of experience told in her stakes debut. Godolphin’s Fair Maiden, a troubled fourth in the Fort Springs, has the back class as the near-miss third in the 2019 Natalma (G1). A triple-surface threat, the Eoin Harty filly should appreciate the pace set-up.

Others in the contentious cast are the speedy Biddy Duke, using the turf-to-dirt angle after wiring the Sen. Ken Maddy (G3) over elders; Torrey Pines (G3) runner-up Secret Keeper, who sports a win over Merneith and Provocation but was only eighth in the Raven Run; and class-challenged Princess Mo.