A clash of stars-in-the-making hasn’t put off Michael McCarthy from entering Independence Hall in Saturday’s Runhappy Malibu Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita.
The new season gets underway at Santa Anita with a mouthwatering three-year-old contest as a field of six are set to line up for the $300,000 dash.
Nashville and Charlatan, winners of six-from-six races contested between them, are the headline acts. Graded stakes winners Collusion Illusion, Thousand Words, and Independence Hall join them, while Express Train rounds out the field and is set to be the underdog.
Independence Hall, winner of four races including the Grade 3 Nashua by more than 12 lengths going a mile at Aqueduct last year, represents McCarthy and will have Joel Rosario in the saddle.
Mike Smith was on board for last month’s win at Del Mar, but the trainer is excited to have the future Hall of Famer back on board the son of Constitution, with Smith instead riding Charlatan.
“We have [Joel] Rosario back, he’s excited to ride him and we’re happy to have him,” said McCarthy.
The clash of Nashville and Charlatan is intriguing for many reasons, though not least the fact that both colts have tended to race prominently in their starts to date. All eyes will be drawn to a potential early-race pace clash.
Independence Hall is four-from-four when racing around one turn, while Collusion Illusion is another potential closer that would relish seeing the big two in the betting get involved in an early duel.
No horse has come within 3½-lengths of beating Nashville, who won the Perryville Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup Saturday undercard last month at Keeneland in a faster time than Whitmore’s winning time in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint hours later.
“Circumstances have put some extremely talented three-year-olds together,” said Nashville’s trainer, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, as he confirmed this was his plan for some time.
“Part of the thinking of running him in the Perryville instead of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint was the opportunity to run in the Malibu and here we are.”
Charlatan has been first past the post in all three starts, though he was disqualified from his most recent start in a division of the May 2 Arkansas Derby (G1) after testing positive for the local anaesthetic lidocaine, the race awarded to Asmussen’s Basin.
Trainer Bob Baffert believes his horse was accidentally exposed as a result of one of his employees wearing a pain patch.
A minor ankle problem has held him back since that May start and Baffert feels Charlatan is now ready to go and showcase his Grade 1-winning potential.
“I think he’s ready to go seven-eighths but is he ready to go seven-eighths against the likes of Nashville? We’ll find out. That’s why we have these races,” Baffert said.
“I believe he’ll run well. He’s the type of horse who runs better in the afternoon than the morning. That’s why he surprised me first time out. I didn’t realize he was so brilliant until he ran the first time.”
Baffert is a three-time winner of the Malibu, while Asmussen has yet to snare the Santa Anita contest despite placed runs from Rothko (2011) and Unbridled’s Note (2012).