Why I'm Betting Nero in the Malibu Stakes

Profile Picture: J. Keeler Johnson

December 22nd, 2018

Get ready, everyone! Racing in North America will be taking a one-day hiatus on December 25th to celebrate Christmas, but we’ll be right back in the thick of things on December 26th when the annual winter/spring meet at Santa Anita kicks off with a stakes-packed afternoon of racing.

Among the highlights is the $300,000 Malibu Stakes (gr. I), a seven-furlong sprint for three-year-olds that has attracted an almost unprecedented sixteen entrants, including two also-eligibles. It’s the kind of race that makes your head spin if you examine it for too long—one way or another, you can make a case for most of these colts—so I’ll endeavor to simplify things and put my faith in the Bob Baffert-trained #8 Nero, a horse I’ve had my eye on for a long time.

In a four-race career twice interrupted by long layoffs, Nero has shown flashes of significant talent while simultaneously giving the impression that he has never, ever given his best. The son of Pioneerof the Nile is quirky with a tendency to lose focus and ease himself up, which cost him victory in his debut at Del Mar, and as a result he’s been ridden very conservatively in his two victories.

But when I think back to how Nero ran in the San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) over this track and distance in February, I can’t help but conclude he has the talent to contend for victory in the Malibu. In the San Vicente, Nero pressed a blazing pace over a slow track, and rounding the far turn he appeared to be going nowhere, perhaps burned out by the fast fractions. But truth be told, I think he was just waiting on horses (again), because when the late-rallying Kanthaka roared to the lead, Nero suddenly re-engaged and found an entirely different gear, stubbornly chasing Kanthaka down the homestretch while leaving the rest of the field twelve lengths behind.

Most recently, Nero was a comfortable winner of a 6 ½-furlong allowance race at Del Mar, in which he again gave the impression that he wasn’t running as fast as he could. That race should serve as a perfect prep for the Malibu, and if he can improve his mental game and actually run for once, I think can challenge the favorites at a nice price.

Baffert will saddle at least three other starters as well, including expected favorite #13 McKinzie, a two-time Grade 1 winner cutting back in distance off a twelfth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Another Baffert entrant is #9 Ax Man, a speedy stakes winner making his first start as a gelding and running for the first time since July.

Rather than get too involved in playing the exotics—I’ll readily admit that this race has me scratching my head for the most part—I’ll just bet Nero to win and play him in the exacta with McKinzie and Ax Man.

$10 to win on #8 Nero $10 exacta: 13 with 8 ($10) $5 exacta: 8 with 9,13 ($10)

Good luck!