The best-known horse in the country will be center stage at Santa Anita on Saturday, as Medina Spirit returns to Grade 1 company in the Awesome Again Stakes against a talented crew of older horses. The other Grade 1 on the card is the Rodeo Drive, full of high-class fillies and mares such as Going To Vegas and Magic Attitude, while there are three Grade 2s that could highlight horses on their way to next month’s Breeders’ Cup, just down the highway in Del Mar.

Awesome Again Stakes Grade 1, $300,000, 1m 1f, 3yo+

As the Medina Spirit/Bob Baffert betamethasone saga rumbles on in committee rooms, the horse at the centre of the controversy returns to action on Saturday in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita, a win-and-in contest for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Medina Spirit, the Kentucky Derby winner – for the moment, while hearings continue – and Preakness third, had three and a half months off after Pimlico before reappearing at Del Mar at the end of August, when he showed no sign of rustiness in leading at every call and keeping on strongly to win a Listed contest by a length and a quarter. Now he takes on older horses for the first time, at his home track where he has never been out of the first two, including when runner-up in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby in April.

He’s the horse to beat, especially as he’s done precious little wrong on the racetrack and should be in good shape on the second run after a layoff, although Pacific Classic winner Tripoli will be a stern opponent. That victory at Del Mar in August was Tripoli’s first try in Grade 1 company, and he showed he belonged at this level with a comfortable success.

He was never far from the pace and never looked like being caught once he’d set sail for home at the top of the stretch, with Tizamagician keeping on gamely to be runner-up, beaten a length and a quarter, after setting the fractions for a mile. Both horses posted their lifetime bests there; the shorter trip won’t help Tizamagician get his head back in front given that his Graded wins this year came at a mile and a half.

Express Train was down the field in the Pacific Classic but on his previous start beat Tripoli by a half-length in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar, and back in January beat Tizamagician comfortably in the Grade 2 San Pasqual over this course and distance. He also had Tizamagician some way behind in the Santa Anita Handicap in March, so throw out his last run, his worst performance since his two-year-old days, and Express Train rates the biggest danger to the morning-line favourite.

His barnmate Midcourt would be in the mix on his 2020 form, which included third-places in this race, the Pacific Classic and the Santa Anita Handicap. He won an allowance here in June on his only start this year, and a three-month layoff is arguably not the best preparation to take on Grade 1 horses in a race like this.

Baffert’s second string Azul Coast is looking for his first Graded-stakes win and probably won’t find it here, which also applies to Stilleto Boy third behind Medina Spirit at Del Mar.

Santa Anita Handicap winner Idol has his first run since winning the ‘Big Cap’ in March, in which he finished ahead of both Express Train and Tizamagician. With just six runs to his name and all of them on the board, he would be at the top of the short-list were it not for that seven-month layoff following a setback, and the words of his trainer Richard Baltas, who told the BloodHorse: “He’s not cranked up. If he wins, he wins, but this is not our goal.” Bettor beware.

HorseJockeyOdds courtesy of Jazzsports
TIZAMAGICIANFlavien Prat+400
MIDCOURTEdwin A. Maldonado+1200
EXPRESS TRAINJuan J. Hernandez+400
STILLETO BOYKent J. Desormeaux+2000
MEDINA SPIRITJohn R. Velazquez+250
AZUL COASTAbel Cedillo+1200
TRIPOLITiago Josue Pereira+300
IDOLJoe Bravo+500

Betting Prediction All eyes will be on Medina Spirit, for more than one reason, but better value is found in EXPRESS TRAIN, who should be forgiven one bad run on an otherwise fine record.

Rodeo Drive Stakes Grade 1, $300,000, 1m 2f turf, 3yo+ fillies/mares

A strong, deep collection of distaffers without a standout contender makes for a highly competitive Rodeo Drive, the outcome of which may revolve around the form of the Grade 2 John C Mabee, over a furlong shorter than today’s race, at Del Mar last month.

Going To Vegas hit the jackpot at the seaside track, staying close to the pace until moving to the lead on the turn, where she kicked clear and opened a lead that stretched to two and a quarter lengths at the wire. It was a convincing performance, and when added to her previous efforts here at Santa Anita, where she won the Grade 3 Santa Ana in March and finished a fair fifth in the Grade 1 Gamely in May, gives her leading credentials as she searches for her first Grade 1 score in this ‘win-and-in’ for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Runner-up in the John C Mabee was Dogtag, who has never won a Graded stakes and suffers from the terrible disease known as seconditis. She has been runner-up in all four starts in 2021, two of them here, and hasn’t put her head in front since winning a Listed over course and distance in July 2020. Given that frustrating record, she is passed over for the far more interesting Fast Jet Court , who was fourth in the Mabee on her first US start, beaten three and a half lengths.

That was a very creditable effort from the four-year-old, winner of two Grade 1s and placed in two more in her native Brazil, who did all her work late at Del Mar. It was only her second run of 2021 and she should move some way forward with that new experience under her belt. Exotics players should take her seriously.

Going To Vegas’s trainer Richard Baltas has a strong second-string in the shape of Luck, who like Fast Jet Court has had only one run Stateside. Luck had winning form in minor company in France, and made the perfect start in her new home when landing an allowance optional claimer at Del Mar in August, coming from the back to win going away. This is a big step up for her, but she can almost certainly improve plenty for that introduction.

Another ex-French filly, this one a Group 3 winner, is Neige Blanche , who has already proved herself in the US and won the Grade 3 Santa Barbara here at a mile and a half in May, beating Rideforthecause by a nose in a desperate finish. Last time out she had Rideforthecause a length and three-quarters back in fourth (Crystalle fifth) when winning a Listed over a mile and three at Del Mar, but she does all her best work late and may be vulnerable at this shorter trip.

Red Lark has a Grade 1 victory on her resume, the Del Mar Oaks in August 2020, but she’s lost seven straight since then – including when behind Going To Vegas and Neige Blanche – and is only two-for-19 lifetime. She’s a risky proposition, more so than Magic Attitude despite that one’s poor recent performances.

Magic Attitude won the Grade 1 Belmont Oaks last year (Neige Blanche third) and the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay in May, also at Belmont, and ships west off the back of two lacklustre efforts at Belmont and Saratoga. At her best she’d be a danger to all, but her last two starts raise an element of doubt.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
DOGTAGJoe Bravo+400
FAST JET COURTDrayden Van Dyke+1000
NEIGE BLANCHEJuan J. Hernandez+800
GOING TO VEGASUmberto Rispoli+250
RIDEFORTHECAUSEMario Gutierrez+1500
CRYSTALLEAbel Cedillo+2000
MAGIC ATTITUDEJohn R. Velazquez+500
LUCKFlavien Prat+300
RED LARKMike E. Smith+1000

Betting Prediction The Rodeo Drive is a tight contest full of talented fillies, but at her likely odds the ex-Brazilian FAST JET COURT is the selection after her promising introduction last time out.

Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes Grade 2, $200,000, 6f, 3yo+

There are only six runners in the Sprint Championship, but according to the market all have a viable shot in this ‘win-and-in’ for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Del Mar next month.

Last year’s Sprint Championship winner CZ Rocket , who went on to be runner-up at the Breeders’ Cup, is back to defend his crown after beating two of today’s rivals 12 months ago. On that occasion CZ Rocket was all out to beat Flagstaff by a head, with Collusion Illusion a length and a quarter back in third, and since then he has hit the board in all six starts, including victory in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Sprint at Oaklawn in April.

He has been beaten over seven furlongs and a mile since that success, with his only start at today’s trip resulting in defeat at the hands of Dr Schivel in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby at Del Mar in July. That is no disgrace, as Dr Schivel has beaten everything he has come up against this year.

The lone three-year-old here, already a winner over course and distance, comes looking for a five-timer after that sizzling show in the Bing Crosby, where he came late and fast to get up in a blanket finish and win by a neck, with CZ Rocket three-quarters of a length away in third after leaving his challenge too late.

Trainer Mark Glatt also runs Collusion Illusion a Grade 1 winner last year in the Bing Crosby but zero-for-four since then, and well beaten on his only start of 2021 in the Grade 3 Green Flash at Del Mar. That was the worst run of his career and this looks a tough spot to try to bounce back.

Colt Fiction has only been off the board once in all his 13 starts, but has been winning allowance races and this is much harder, while Vertical Threat has been soundly beaten on both tries at Graded company and should set the early fractions but no more.

The reliable Flagstaff took down the Grade 1 Churchill Downs over seven furlongs in May and was third in this race two years ago, but he hasn’t won over this short a distance since breaking his maiden back in June 2018, and might find things happening too fast for him here.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
DR. SCHIVELFlavien Prat+200
COLT FICTIONGeovanni Franco+800
C Z ROCKETFlorent Geroux+250
FLAGSTAFFJoe Bravo+350

Betting Prediction It has to be DR SCHIVEL, who is unbeaten in his last four races and comes here on the back of a Grade 1 win over today’s most dangerous rival.

City Of Hope Mile Stakes Grade 2, $200,000, 1m turf, 3yo+

A short field for the City Of Hope but a good one, with the trifecta horses from the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile in August taking each other on again.

On that occasion Mo Forza led them home by a head from Smooth Like Strait, with a length further back to Hit The Road in third, with the winner swooping late to land the spoils in the last few jumps. That victory was made more impressive considering it was the first start of the year for Mo Forza, who had been absent since winning the City Of Hope 12 months ago.

The five-year-old has an extraordinary record, has been beaten only once in his last eight starts, all but one in Graded company, and won the Del Mar Mile last year before coming here to win the City Of Hope. Lightning may not strike twice but Mo Forza has a great chance of doing so despite being 4lb worse off with Smooth Like Strait.

Smooth Like Strait is a thoroughly honest sort who has hit the board on his last eight starts, winning the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile here in May when leading at every call. Between that and the Del Mar Mile he was beaten just a neck in the Grade 2 Eddie Read over a mile and an eighth at the seaside circuit, and it’s probably a safe bet that he’ll be in front somewhere in the stretch, but he is always vulnerable to a late closer.

There should be little between he and Hit The Road, as there was in the Grade 1 Frank Kilroe Mile here in March when Hit The Road got the verdict by a neck, with Smooth Like Strait again caught in the closing stages. Everything is set up for another thriller and it would be no surprise to see exactly the same result as at Del Mar last time.

Red Storm Risen and Order And Law work the allowance optional claimer beat, winning some, losing some, and look up against it today.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
MO FORZAFlavien Prat+120
HIT THE ROADFlorent Geroux+300
ORDER AND LAWAbel Cedillo+800
SMOOTH LIKE STRAITUmberto Rispoli+160

Betting Prediction The three Grade 1 winners in the City Of Hope will have it between them, as last time, and MO FORZA has to be the choice to repeat last year’s success in this race.

John Henry Turf Championship Stakes Grade 2, $200,000, 1m 2f turf, 3yo+

If the Rodeo Drive and the City Of Hope contain major elements from previous races at Del Mar, then the John Henry Turf Championship is an absolute carbon copy, with no fewer than six of today’s runners coming on from the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap in August.

The winner, Astronaut, is not one of them, but renewing rivalry are Master Piece (runner-up), Acclimate (third), United (fourth), Red King (fifth), Award Winner (ninth) and Media Blitz (tenth), and considering that roughly five lengths covered the first ten home there, it’s anyone’s guess how it’ll pan out this time round.

Last year’s winner and 2019 third United defends his crown, and the former Breeders’ Cup Turf runner-up holds Acclimate on the form of his victory in the Grade 3 San Luis Rey here in March. He will surely go well, as will Neptune’s Storm one of the few not tied up in collateral form given that he has been running at a mile and looks ready for this longer route.

In another spot of deja vu, Award Winner won the Grade 2 Charlie Whittingham over course and distance in May, beating Acclimate by a head, with Red King and United third and fourth in a four-runner field. Award Winner seems to reserve his best for this track, where he has never been worse than second in four starts, and in such a complicated race such a factor could prove important.

Recent British import Count Of Amazonia did all his winning in the old country on synthetics in minor company, and was half a length behind Ready Soul when they were second and third in a Del Mar allowance last time; Golden Gate specialist Camino Del Paraiso is zero-for-seven here; Friar’s Road comes here off the back of a comfortable victory in a Del Mar allowance and is evidently in reasonable form.

And don’t forget Master Piece ,the best-placed of the Del Mar Handicap sextet, who has run five times since relocating from Chile, three times in Grade 1 company. This is probably his level and he was finishing best of all at Del Mar, closing from sixth at the top of the lane and only going down by a half-length.

Horse Jockey Odds courtesy of Jazzsports
AWARD WINNERKyle Frey+1200
NEPTUNE’S STORMFlorent Geroux+600
UNITEDFlavien Prat+250
READY SOULJohn R. Velazquez+1200
ACCLIMATERicardo Gonzalez+450
MASTER PIECEDrayden Van Dyke+500
COUNT OF AMAZONIAVictor Espinoza+1200
MEDIA BLITZJuan J. Hernnadez+2000
RED KINGJoe Bravo+1500
CUPID’S CLAWSMike E. Smith+1200
FRIAR’S ROADUmberto Rispoli+1500
K P ALL SYSTEMS GOTyler Baze+2000

Betting Prediction This is not a race to get heavily involved in given the tightly interconnecting form, but AWARD WINNER always goes well at Santa Anita and is a value bet at these odds.

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