Successful title defenses were the theme at Santa Anita on Saturday. Merneith rebuffed Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) heroine Ce Ce to retain her crown in the $200,000 Santa Monica (G2), and Express Train likewise scored a repeat in the $200,500 San Pasqual (G2).
Santa Monica (G2)
Ce Ce ranked as the 1-2 favorite in her reappearance, after dethroning Gamine in the Breeders’ Cup and putting herself in position for a possible Eclipse Award. But the six-year-old mare couldn’t reach Merneith, who went wire to wire with Edwin Maldonado.
Trained by Bob Baffert, like the now-retired Gamine, Merneith had raced only once since her signature win in the 2021 Santa Monica. The daughter of American Pharoah resurfaced from a nearly 11-month layoff in the Jan. 2 Kalookan Queen and ran a useful second to Edgeway, holding that position at every call.
Merneith benefited from that tightener. Blitzing to the lead on Saturday, the 2.80-1 second choice set fractions of :22.39 and :45.75. Her early pursuer, Park Avenue, was beaten by the far turn, when Ce Ce was launching her customary rally. Although the Breeders’ Cup champ appeared to threaten, she couldn’t sustain her bid, and Merneith kicked away in the stretch. Her margin widened to three lengths as she finished seven furlongs in 1:22.39.
Ce Ce was easily second by 3 3/4 lengths from Kalypso, Baffert’s other runner. Park Avenue and Full of Grace rounded out the strung-out field.
Prince Sultan bin Mishal al Saud’s Merneith advanced her resume to 12-5-4-2, $493,620. Her first stakes score came in the 2020 Fort Springs S. on the Breeders’ Cup undercard at Keeneland, and she also placed third in that year’s Santa Anita Oaks (G2) and La Brea (G1).
“She won this race last year,” Baffert told Santa Anita publicity, “and she needed her last race. Edwin gets along with her great and it was a perfect pace for her. Everything went well and when she’s on, I’ve always thought very highly of her. She got to prove it today. She beat a good field of fillies.
“Some of these riders, they don’t get the chances. I’ve had a lot of luck with Edwin. He’s calm, cool, collected.”
Maldonado was grateful to retain the mount.
“I just want to thank Bob for leaving me on her. I’m pretty sure he could have put anybody else, but the fact that he put me back on her, it means a lot to me,” her rider said.
“I was just letting her do everything on her own, I didn’t want to take anything away from her.
“When (Ce Ce) came (to) her, she saw her and picked it up on her own. I didn’t even have to ask her.
“When we turned for home, I was pretty sure she was the winner. I didn’t even ask her until she switched leads.”
Bred by China Horse Club in Kentucky, Merneith is out of the stakes-winning Flatter mare Flattermewithroses. The bay sold for $350,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky November weanling, and her current connections went to $600,000 to secure her as an OBS March juvenile.
San Pasqual (G2)
C R K Stable’s Express Train had a more contentious trip than jockey Victor Espinoza envisioned, but that couldn’t derail the 8-5 favorite.
Angling off the inside to take up a stalking position, Express Train ended up surging between American Theorem and Law Professor. Eight Rings, who had gone forward and crossed over, was in the process of throttling back. So Express Train found himself on the engine going into the clubhouse turn, when Eight Rings then quickened to regain the lead passing the first quarter in :22.72.
Espinoza was now committed to having the favorite attend a strong tempo for the 1 1/8-mile affair. The John Shirreffs charge took the assignment in stride. Flanking Eight Rings through splits of :47.16 and 1:11.75, Express Train was himself stalked by Law Professor wider out. As the favorite made his move on the far turn, Law Professor went with him, and Eight Rings bowed out.
Once Express Train was able to level off in the stretch, however, Law Professor could not keep up. The reigning champion powered 3 1/4 lengths clear in a final time of 1:50.99.
Eight Rings plugged on for third, 2 1/2 lengths astern of Law Professor. Next came Spielberg, Kiss Today Goodbye, and American Theorem.
“I think this was a little bit more difficult for him,” Shirreffs said, comparing last year’s stalk-and-pounce win. “There was a lot going on early with the fast pace. He was in the two-hole…Nobody got to relax because Mike’s horse (Smith, aboard American Theorem) came up on the outside and wanted to force the pace, so it was do or die time then. We’re looking forward to the Big ‘Cap.”
Espinoza recounted the early free-for-all:
“It got a little bit complicated out of the gate because I thought the two horses outside of me were going to go and make the pace. Then the one decided to take back, and I already next to them, so that kind of made my decision to go forward and stay there rather than be stuck on the inside.
“It’s all about the horses too. Express Train he helped me to move with such confidence, at that point that I was not afraid to just let him go. It was one of those things where you have to make a decision and hope for the best. Today it seemed like we did the right combination and it worked.”
Express Train was following up on his photo-finish score over Hot Rod Charlie in the Dec. 26 San Antonio (G2). The form was boosted Friday when Hot Rod Charlie romped in the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2) at Meydan, his prep for the Dubai World Cup (G1). Express Train’s next target is in his own backyard in the Santa Anita H. (G1), where he missed by a half-length a year ago.
The five-year-old son of Union Rags now sports a mark of 16-6-4-3, $935,800, also reflecting a score in last summer’s San Diego H. (G2) and placings in the Oaklawn H. (G2), Hollywood Gold Cup (G1), Awesome Again (G1), and 2020 Malibu (G1).
Express Train was bred by Dixiana Farms in Kentucky and purchased for $500,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. His dam, I’m a Flake, is a daughter of Mineshaft and multiple Grade 1 queen November Snow.
Thunder Road (G3)
In Saturday’s opener, the $100,500 Thunder Road (G3) on turf, a refreshed Count Again fired off a five-month layoff to deny 3-5 favorite Subconscious. Under a well-timed ride by new pilot Flavien Prat, the Phil D’Amato veteran got up by a half-length as the 2.80-1 second choice.
Subconscious didn’t break cleanly on the rail and found himself pressing longshot Sniper Kitten through fractions of :23.32, :47.41, and 1:11.16 on the firm course. Although the favorite drove ahead in the stretch, he still looked green lugging in, and ultimately succumbed in 1:34.12 for the grassy mile. A further three lengths back in third came Ready Soul, followed by Delaware, Sniper Kitten, and slow-starting Hurricane Cloud in his U.S. premiere.
Agave Racing Stable and Sam-Son Farm’s Count Again has earned $463,665 from a 14-5-1-4 line. The Sam-Son Ontario homebred captured the 2020 Singspiel (G3) at Woodbine before embarking upon a new chapter out west with D’Amato. Hero of that fall’s Seabiscuit (G2) and third in the 2021 Frank E. Kilroe Mile (G1) and Eddie Read (G2), the gelding was a weary fifth in the Aug. 21 Del Mar Mile (G2) last out.
“The (time off) did him a ton of good,” D’Amato observed. “He told me in his last race at Del Mar, ‘Hey, I’ve had a long campaign maybe it’s time to give me a freshener.’ And we did that. The owners have been great. Sam-Son Farms, Mark Martinez of Agave Racing, they just told me to give him all the time he needs, and we brought him back fresh and happy.”
The trainer added that Prat’s familiarity with Count Again in the mornings was key for their clicking on raceday.
“I think Flavien got acquainted with him, breezing him the last couple of times, and I think that helped him with his timing. He’s a horse that just takes him a while to get in gear, but once he does, he’s got a pretty impressive late turn of foot.”
By Awesome Again and out of the stakes-winning Red Ransom mare Count to Three, Count Again is a half-brother to two-time Bing Crosby (G1) victor Ransom the Moon. Second dam Countus In, the 1990 Matriarch (G1) winner, hails from the immediate family of likely Horse of the Year Knicks Go.