The name of the race is familiar, the players are choice, and the pot is right for the $400,000 Vanity on Saturday at Santa Anita Park, featuring champions Beholder and Stellar Wind. But why will the starting gate be sitting in the wrong place?
Welcome to the first running of the Vanity Mile, the latest rearrangement of well-worn chairs on the deck of the leaky liner that is the Southern California stakes schedule since the closure of Hollywood Park.
Beginning in 1954, and every year with the exception of two through 2013, Hollywood's Vanity was run at 1-1/8 miles, agreed upon far and wide as the proper distance at which to test the best available older fillies and mares on the main track. Those two exceptions were in 1986 and 1987, when the Vanity was expanded to 1-1/4 miles. The idea was honorable, but the experiment went nowhere.
Santa Anita picked up the baton and continued the Vanity the past two years, although with less than the regular national impact derived from such winners as Bayakoa, Paseana, Escena, Riboletta, Azeri, Zenyatta, and Blind Luck over the past quarter-century.
There were consequences. According to Rick Hammerle, Santa Anita's vice president of racing, the Vanity found itself under attack from two sides. Although no official warnings have been issued, its hold on Grade 1 status from the American Graded Stakes Committee of the Kentucky-based Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association was becoming tenuous. At the same time, the Vanity was suffering from serious casino envy beneath the shade thrown by Belmont Park's $1 million Odgen Phipps, which has become part of the gaudy Belmont Stakes card.
"We're still trying to figure out what things are supposed to look like after losing Hollywood Park," Hammerle said. "The Vanity is an important race with a great history, but we felt we had to do something to shake things up, put some life back into it. We looked around and saw there was no Grade 1 race at one mile for the division, so we thought this was a way to make it an event that could stand on its own."
Fair enough. You can't blame track management for trying. The Vanity purse was goosed by $100,000 and plunked down just one week prior to the June 11 Phipps, basically ignoring its existence. Reducing the distance to one mile has lured Taris, Lost Bus, and Finest City -- major stakes winners at 6 1/2 and seven furlongs this year -- and gives Beholder a shot to strut her considerable stuff at eight furlongs for the first time in nearly three years.
Unfortunately, one-mile races on one-mile racetracks like Santa Anita prove nothing. In fields of any size, the luck of the draw and the break play a disproportionate role in the short dash to the first turn. After that, the opening quarter-mile is run almost entirely on a bend with a pace that is less than honest, rendering the race little more than a six-furlong sprint with a badly staggered start.
As long as Beholder wakes up on the right side of the stall Saturday morning, the Vanity should give her little trouble. She missed the race last year, when it was run in early May, with a mild virus that did not prevent her from returning to maintain a winning streak that has now reached seven. Gary Stevens, Beholder's alter ego, will be aboard again, trying mightily to keep a straight face in the post parade.
This is not to imply any disrespect for Stellar Wind, the champion 3-year-old filly of 2015 who is making her first start since a narrow loss in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Keeneland, or Taris, who was breathtaking in the Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs and won the two-turn La Canada in January at Santa Anita. Even longshot Lost Bus, the winner of the Santa Monica at 64-1 this year, deserves a nod for teeing it up against a three-time champion like Beholder.
"I come from a time when, if they put up $400,000, you ran," said Gary Sherlock, who trains Lost Bus for Terry Lovingier. "There's nothing wrong with getting a piece of a purse like that."
Lost Bus, a daughter of Bring the Heat, followed her Santa Monica shocker with an allowance win in March and then a game third to Finest City in the Grade 2 Great Lady M. at Los Alamitos.
"She's one of the best I've ever seen," Sherlock said of Beholder. "Right there with those great Wayne Lukas fillies -- Lady's Secret, Serena's Song, and Winning Colors -- Flawlessly on the turf and, of course, Zenyatta.
"I'm not suggesting we could beat Beholder," Sherlock added. "But we wouldn't even be in there if the race wasn't a mile."
So, there you go. Chalk one up for change, sort of. Still, there is a school of logical thought that says reducing a top filly-and-mare race in distance does nothing to help the strength of the breed, something that should concern an organization called the Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders Association. And it is distressing to concede that the California stakes program must bend to the calendar pressure of New York races pumped up by slots cash.
On the other hand, for $400,000, the Vanity Mile got Beholder, and the million-dollar Phipps did not.