The holiday present the racing world gives us on the day after Christmas is opening day of the winter-spring meeting at Santa Anita Park – and the bright shiny bow on that present is, as usual, the $300,000, Grade 1 Runhappy Malibu Stakes. Six 3-year-old horses are entered and each is special in his own right, with five of them stakes winners.
We have to start with the Bob Baffert-trained Charlatan, who crossed the finish line first in a division of the rescheduled Grade 1 Arkansas Derby in May, only to be stripped of that victory later for a medication violation. Baffert, who has won the Malibu three times previously, also saddles Thousand Words, winner of the 2019 Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity as well as the Shared Belief Stakes this past summer. Collusion Illusion won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar in August, and that makes him the only graded stakes winner in this field to score in sprint race like the seven-furlong Malibu. Then there’s Nashville, who is undefeated in three starts and won the Perryville Stakes last month in the sizzling time of 1:07.89. Independence Hall is no slouch, as he won the Grade 3 Nashua Stakes in November 2019 and also came back off a seven-month layoff to win last month. Express Train has been first or second in all four of his races at a mile or less, and although this will be his first try in a graded stakes around one turn he can’t be ruled out as a contender.
In this handicapper’s opinion, this year’s Malibu Stakes is Nashville’s to lose. His effort in the Perryville Stakes last month at Keeneland was scintillating, as he won by 3 ½ lengths and was geared down in the final yards after having run his opponents off their feet. The track that day was fast but fair and his 115 Equibase Speed Figure bears that out. He earned a 106 figure winning his debut in September at Saratoga, and then earned a 113 five weeks later, and this colt is lightly enough raced that we have likely not seen his best yet. Nashville has put in three recent sizzling workouts at trainer Steve Asmussen’s winter base at Fair Grounds in Louisiana – all at five furlongs, with the most recent in :58.8 which was the best of 20 on the day. Asmussen’s number one jockey Ricardo Santana is in the saddle for the Malibu as he was for the Perryville, and with no horse in the field faster in the first quarter mile, Nashville may be running for a record-setting time in Saturday’s race.
Independence Hall is the only horse I could see beating Nashville, based on how the race is likely to be run and based on the fact he’s making his second start back after seven months off as well as coming off a career-best effort. Independence Hall won the first three races of his career starting back in September 2019. His second and third career wins came in stakes, both around one turn including the Nashua Stakes at Aqueduct last November with a 107 figure. He then won the Jerome Stakes and put himself into the early 2020 Kentucky Derby picture, but subsequently Independence Hall finished second in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and then a poor fifth in the Xpressbet Florida Derby. Away from the races from the end of March until last month, Independence Hall changed trainers to Mike McCarthy and came back better than ever with a new career-best 108 figure effort racing in a 6 ½-furlong sprint at Del Mar. Independence Hall has put in two swift workouts since then at Santa Anita, the most recent coming in :59 flat for five furlongs, which was the best of 83 workouts at the distance on that day. He gets a good outside post in case the pace is hot, and if he improves his 108 last-race figure could potentially post the upset.
Regarding Charlatan, who gets Mike Smith to ride for the first time and is likely to be either the betting favorite or second betting favorite behind Nashville, there are some serious concerns in my opinion about his win probability compared to others. First, he hasn’t been seen since winning the Arkansas Derby nearly eight months ago, and in spite of some excellent workouts, he doesn’t stand out based on his best efforts. In the race prior to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park in March, Charlatan earned a 108 figure just on par with the figure Independence Hall earned last month and much lower than the 113 and 115 figures Nashville earned in his two most recent races, as well as shy of the 116 figure Collusion Illusion earned winning the Bing Crosby Stakes last summer. Next, in spite of having won this race three times previously, Bob Baffert just does not have a good record with horses coming back from layoffs in the two big races for 3-year-olds on Santa Anita’s opening weekend – the Malibu Stakes and the La Brea Stakes (for fillies). According to a query I ran using STATS Race Lens, Baffert has not won in seven tries over the last five years with horses coming back from layoffs longer than two months. His most recent win in this race, with McKinzie in 2018, came off a layoff of just under two months. Particularly, horses which last ran in May (similar to Charlatan) fared poorly, such as Lord Nelson (2015), Mor Spirit (2016) and Solomini (2018). With those results in mind, I’m taking a stand against Charlatan. I’ll also note that he has led from start to finish in all three of his races and there’s little chance he’ll get the early lead against Nashville.
As to the rest of the field, Express Train earned a career-best figure of 112 when second at a mile in late September over the track before a failed attempt on turf. If he can return to competitive form back on the main track he can get a piece. Collusion Illusion rallied from seventh to win the Bing Crosby with a 116 figure and before that won the Lazaro Barrera Stakes at 6 ½ furlongs, so he could be making up ground late and is another with a shot to finish in the money. Thousand Words ran the second worst race of his career when last seen in October, finishing eighth in the Preakness Stakes. His best efforts – wins in the Shared Belief Stakes and Robert B. Lewis Stakes – earned 107 figures, but both were two-turn races so he would need to run better than he ever has to beat many of these.
Win Contenders, in preference order: