Most handicappers that I know keep a “horses to watch” list, myself included. It’s only natural — when you handicap races throughout the year, there are bound to be horses that catch your eye from time to time and make you think “I’m playing that one next time!”
Well, a horse that has been on my watch list since his debut is among the full field of horses entered in the Dec. 26, Grade 1 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita, the feature on opening day of the track’s winter/spring meet. And in a race that looks wildly competitive on paper, I’m tempted to keep things simple and just let my watch list do the work.
The horse I have my eye on is Nero (#8), a beautifully-bred son of Pioneerof the Nile trained by Bob Baffert. Purchased for $950,000 as a yearling, Nero has shown a lot of potential in four starts, but his career has twice been interrupted by long layoffs, and when he does run he has a tendency to exhibit quirks that make him difficult to ride.
Case in point: in Nero’s debut at Del Mar in August 2017, he was leading by 2 ½ lengths at the eighth pole before suddenly losing focus and shortening stride. Essentially, Nero was saying “what happened to the pack?” while easing himself up; that proved costly as he was caught in the final strides to lose by a nose.
Four months later, Nero returned in a maiden race at Santa Anita and was given a very careful and conservative ride while wearing blinkers for the first time. Despite a wide trip, Nero won by a nose while giving the impression that his superiority was much greater than his slim margin of victory — no effort was made to let Nero open a clear lead at any point, lest he pull himself up again.
It was in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes that Nero really showed his potential. After pressing a blazing pace on a slow track, Nero initially seemed hesitant to go past the pacesetters. But when the late-running Kanthaka roared to the front turning for home, Nero appeared to remember that he was in a race and suddenly found another gear, gamely chasing Kanthaka through the homestretch to finish second, a dozen lengths clear of the third-place horse.
Nero went to the sidelines again after that, but he returned on Nov. 17 to win an allowance race at Del Mar in comfortable fashion, again receiving a conservative ride to keep the margin at just 1 ½ lengths. So my main takeaway from Nero’s four races to date? I don’t think we’ve seen the best he has to offer even once. If he ever settles down and runs, I think he could step up his game significantly.
The good news is, Nero figures to start at a nice price in the Malibu Stakes, a race in which his Grade 1-winning stablemate McKinzie (#13) looms as the horse to beat and another stablemate — the speedy stakes winner Ax Man (#9) — can’t be underestimated either while racing as a gelding for the first time. So rather than attempt to split hairs and figure out which horses to play in the trifecta or superfecta, I’m going to trust my watch list and bet Nero to win while keying him in the exacta with McKinzie and Ax Man.
$8 to win on #8 Nero ($8)
$3 exacta: 8 with 9,13 ($6)
$3 exacta: 9,13 with 9 ($6)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!