If McKinzie is to cap his three-year-old campaign with a second Grade 1 tally of the season in the $300,000 Malibu (G1), the Bob Baffert-trained colt will have to overcome post 13 in the seven-furlong dash, the traditional opening day highlight of Santa Anita’s 2018-19 winter/spring meet on December 26.
Despite the disadvantageous draw, McKinzie is the likely favorite in the full field of 14, with two also-eligibles waiting in the wings for defections.
Baffert’s leading classic prospect before injury sidelined him last winter and the arrival of eventual Triple Crown winner Justify, McKinzie turned in a gallant effort to win the September 22 Pennsylvania Derby (G1) over Axelrod after a six-month break. He could not replicate that form in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), though, retreating to 12th in the field of 14 after racing close to the pace.
“He’s doing really well,” Baffert said earlier this week. “I freshened him up a little after the Breeders’ Cup, and in retrospect, he wasn’t ready to go a mile and a quarter…but I thought I had him back.
“The Breeders’ Cup took me out of my normal program. It’s a lot of money and it seemed right, but he just didn’t show up. I like the way he’s training here for seven-eighths.”
Baffert has entered three others. Multiple Grade 1-placed Solomini is on the comeback trail having placed in the June 10 Affirmed (G3) most recently. Ax Man, who impressively won the $100,000 Sir Barton on the Preakness Day undercard, is making his first start since running third in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3) in July and has been gelded since. Stepping back up in class is San Vicente (G2) runner-up Nero, winner of a November 18 allowance at Del Mar following a nine-month spell.
Also returning from a long break is Kanthaka, winner earlier this year of the San Vicente and the May 12 Lazaro Barrera (G3) when last seen.
Besides multiple Grade 3 winner Axelrod, who ran ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic last time, others invading from the east include Grade 2 winner Copper Bullet, a Churchill Downs allowance winner last month following a 15-month layoff; Woody Stephens (G2) winner Still Having Fun; Allen Jerkens (G1) runner-up Seven Trumpets; Steel Valley Sprint runner-up Bobby’s Wicked One; and the Chad Brown-trained Identity Politics, who makes his stakes debut.
The marquee name in the $300,000 San Antonio (G2), for three-year-olds and up at 1 1/16 miles, is 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Midway Road, who recently held off Dabster by a neck in the Native Diver (G3) at Del Mar going nine furlongs.
Opposing that pair are Tatters to Riches, hero of the $100,000 Shared Belief at Del Mar two back; Cougar II H. (G3) victor Beach View; Zia Park Derby runner-up Air Strike; and the Grade 2-placed Gift Box, who makes his California debut for new trainer John Sadler.
“He’s got a good record back east and he’s training beautifully,” Sadler said. “I think he could be a player in the handicap division.”