The $200,000, Grade 2 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes Saturday at Santa Anita Park is a “Win & You’re In” qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The race drew a six-horse field, and each contender has a chance to win. Leading the field is C Z Rocket, who has earned nearly $1.5 million while winning 11 of 28 races in his career, including the 2020 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes.
Flagstaff was beaten a head in last year’s edition of the race but was later disqualified to fifth due to a medication violation. He has done little wrong in his last four races, winning the Grade 1 Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by Ford in May and most recently finishing third and a head behind runner-up C Z Rocket in the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes won by Ginobili. The third-place finisher in this race last year (placed second) was Collusion Illusion, who had won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes one month earlier. After taking eight months off following a third-place finish last December in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes, Collusion Illusion most recently finished seventh while trying turf for the first time in the Grade 3 Green Flash Handicap. He could improve coming back to the surface where he has won five of nine races. Vertical Threat has won four of five dirt sprints in his career, three of those stakes, including the Steel Valley Sprint last November and most recently the Russell Road Stakes Presented by Triple Crown Nutrition. Dr. Schivel, the only 3-year-old in the field, won this year’s Bing Crosby Stakes at the end of July. Winner of four races in a row after losing his first two, Dr. Schivel appears to be on the verge of another top effort. Colt Fiction rounds out the field. Runner-up in the Thor’s Echo Stakes for California bred-horses in June, he enters the Santa Anita Sprint Championship off a victory against softer foes in an allowance race.
As mentioned previously, Vertical Threat is four-for-five in dirt sprints. Three of those three wins came at the six-furlong distance of the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. The fastest of those came last November when he led from start to finish to draw off by 7 ½ lengths in the Steel Valley Sprint, earning a career-best 118 Equibase Speed Figure on par with the 117 figure C Z Rocket earned winning the Santa Anita Sprint Championship last year. Although Saturday’s field is composed of some top sprinters, none has the early speed of Vertical Threat. He used that early speed to win both the Steel Valley Sprint and also, most recently, the Russell Road Stakes. After leading from the start and setting fast fractions for the track at Charles Town, Vertical Threat still pulled away late to win the Russell Road by 3 ½ lengths. Cutting back from seven furlongs to the six-furlong trip he so dearly loves, and making his third start after returning from an eight-month layoff, I have little doubt jockey Abel Cedillo is going to put Vertical Threat on the lead and play “come catch me” with the field. Considering those tactics were successful in the colt’s last two wins and considering that the 118 figure he earned in one of them is good enough to win against this field, Vertical Threat may be very tough to beat Saturday.
C Z Rocket was claimed for a fairly paltry $40,000 in April of 2020 compared to the more than $1 million he’s earned since then by winning seven of 10 races. He won the 2020 Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar with a 110 figure before earning a career-best 117 figure in last year’s Santa Anita Sprint Championship. He was not disgraced one bit following that effort when he ran second in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, and C Z Rocket returned in March to win the Hot Springs Stakes (111 figure) and the Count Fleet Stakes (114 figure). He’s run well in three races since, all graded stakes, without posting a victory. It’s possible the 7-year-old has lost a step – but on the other hand, considering he’s on the same pattern as last year and cutting back from seven furlongs to six, he must be respected as a contender.
Flagstaff won the Commonwealth Stakes at seven furlongs in April and the Churchill Downs Stakes in May and then cut back to 6 ½ furlongs and ran in to a buzzsaw in Firenze Fire, who he finished second to in the True North Stakes in June with a 110 figure. After a break of nearly three months, Flagstaff finished third, only a head behind runner-up C Z Rocket in this year’s Pat O’Brien. That puts him on the same pattern he was on last year when he finished second in the Pat O’Brien behind C Z Rocket and then lost to him by a head in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Flagstaff earned a 117 figure in last year’s Santa Anita Sprint Championship, which is tied for his career best with the figure he earned when finishing second by a neck in the 2020 Palos Verdes Stakes going six furlongs. Saturday he’ll cut back a furlong while making his second start off a layoff – just as he did when almost winning this race last year. Overall, Flagstaff has a strong chance to add to his seven-for-21 record on dirt and $1 million in career earnings.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Collusion Illusion (114), Colt Fiction (110) and Dr. Schivel (109).
C Z Rocket