Friday, April 7, 2017

Handicapper's Corner: Santa Anita Derby (G1)

Santa Anita Derby Wide Open Contest

By: Nick Costa, Trackside With Trackman

It's been a turbulent journey this year for horses auditioning for the Kentucky Derby, not to mention agonizing for handicappers. The prep races leading to Churchill Downs have been won by a mixed bag of 3-yr olds, some of them, longshots. Although last weekend's results may have given a minuscule peek of clarity to the picture, the overall road has seen several leading contenders throw in a mysterious head scratching performances, incur setbacks due to minor injuries, or sustain major injuries that have taken them out of Derby consideration.  

For horses in the first two groups, they've had time on their side up to this point. As in, time to regroup or time to heal up nagging issues and try again.

But now, four weeks out from the 143rd Run for the Roses, time takes on a different meaning. As in, time to get serious. 

Over the next two weekends, a quartet Kentucky Derby prep races offering 100-40-20-10 qualifying points to the first through fourth place finishers will be contested. At the end of the prep series, that began last fall, the Top Twenty horses accumulating the most points throughout the prep races are awarded berths in America's most famous race. For those horses that are currently lacking in points to safely put them in the starting gate on Saturday, May 6th, their accomplishments in this quartet of final prep races, all run at 1 1/8-miles, will ultimately decide if they have passed the Derby audition.

Three of the four will be run this Saturday, one of those races, the Santa Anita Derby, is covered here.

The Santa Anita Derby, the premier Kentucky Derby prep race on the West Coast, has long been a great race. The list of horses that have won this event over the years is truly remarkable - Swaps, Sham, Triple Crown winner Affirmed, Winning Colors, Sunday Silence and, more recently, California Chrome.

A low point for the Santa Anita Derby came from 2007 through 2010, when the race was conducted on a synthetic surface, and California horses weren't at their best. However, since 2011, when the race returned to dirt, it has once again proved prolific, by producing two Kentucky Derby winners (2012, 2014), as well a pair of horses that went on to finish second (2016) and third (2015) on the first Saturday in May.

The top spot in the California 3-yr old division is wide open following the defection of Mastery from the Kentucky Derby trail, so the Santa Anita Derby winner will likely head to Louisville as one of the leaders for the Run for the Roses.
A baker's dozen will take to the track at the "Great Race Place." 9 of the 13 horses that make up the field come from the stables of three Kentucky Derby winning trainer’s - Doug O’Neill saddles a quartet of horses, Bob Baffert enters a trio and a there's a pair from John Sheriffs. It should be noted that Baffert, who won the Triple Crown two years ago with American Pharoah, currently doesn't have a single horse with enough points to make the Derby field. Like I stated at the outset of this preview: It’s time to get serious.

Post time for this important G1 prep is 3:30 pm E.S.T.

Let's take a look from the rail out.

PP - Horse/Jockey/Trainer

1- Term of Art/Baze/O'Neill--This race marks the fourth and final prep Santa Anita offers for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, and this colt competed in the first three. Improved his finishing position in each of those three starts, including runner-up to Mastery last out. Closed from off the pace to win the Cecil B Demille stakes in late November at Del Mar, a race originally scheduled for the turf course. Closer drew the rail, so he’ll need to work out a trouble free trip just to get a piece with his late run.

2 -Reach The World/Smith/Baffert--Grey colt didn’t race as a 2-year old, which is a big negative when you’re talking Kentucky Derby. Made his debut in January, and in three lifetime starts, all two-turn events, he has recorded a win, a second and a third. Is in good form and now takes on stakes company for the first time. Based on his pedigree, there's potential for a break-out performance at this 9-furlong distance. 

3 -Battle of Midway/Nakatani/Hollendorfer--Another horse that debuted in January where he won by over three-lengths. Off that race, he went straight into stakes company in the San Vicente where he burned a lot of bettor’s money as the 4-5 favorite in an 8-length loss to Iliad. Show his gameness when rebounding back to win a first condition allowance by a neck, over Reach The World, when stretched out to two turns. This colt has been a factor every time out.

4 - Comma Sister/Ocampo/Papaprodromou--Was well-beaten by 8-lengths in his only two dirt starts last fall, despite finishing third in his maiden debut. Was shelved for nearly four months before reappearing in February and winning on the turf. Connections are shooting for the moon in this spot.

5 - So Conflated/Gutierrez/O'Neill--Won the California Derby on synthetic at Golden Gate in his two-turn debut. Sent to Louisiana for the Risen Star Stakes at Fairgrounds, but was scratched after drawing a wide post. Then shipped to New York's Aqueduct to contest the Gotham Stakes, but never got involved in the running, finishing sixth. Now back in California where he's run well, including a second-place finish on this track. and maybe the confides of home will bring about a better performance.

6 - American Anthem/Garcia/Baffert--Displayed talent in first two races, including a narrow loss in the slop behind Gormley in the Sham Stakes. His last start in the Rebel was an absolute disaster. He didn't get a good start and ripped off a shoe during the running. Clearly a valid excuse for his poor 10th-place outing, so I'm willing to draw a line through it. Recorded spectacular works pre-and-post Rebel. Loses Mike Smith who rode the last two races, but Martin Garcia rides regularly for Baffert and together they have combined for many graded stakes wins.

 7 - Kimbear/Talamo/Kruljac--Scratched out of Sunland Derby two weeks ago to go here. Has placed in 5 of 6 career starts.  Makes stakes debut having finally broke maiden ranks last time out over this course back in late February in an impressive performance.  Prior to that, he recorded a third and a second respectively in MSW races. Is working lights over the track surface. Can his latest success step him up to victory against this competition?

8 - Gormley/Espinoza/Sheriffs--Won at first asking as a 2-yo, then stepped up in class against a tough field to score in the G1 Frontrunner Stakes at Santa Anita. Flopped in the G1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile where he finished 7th. Started off 3-yo season by narrowly winning the Sham Stakes in the slop over American Anthem after a lengthy duel on the front-end, finishing 13-lengths in front of the others. Mastery totally dominated the San Felipe, but this colt challenged on the far turn before fading to fourth. Has already proved himself one of the better horses out West.

 9 - Iliad/Prat/O'Neill--Is the best of the foursome sent out by O’Neill. Broke his maiden in his second try, then following a two-month respite, he won a 5-horse San Vicente, but did it impressively enough to emerge as a contender toward Kentucky. In the San Felipe, his first two-turn try, he couldn’t keep up with Mastery through the far turn and had to settle for second. Son of Ghostzapper is a seriously talented horse and shouldn’t be ignored.

10 - Milton Freewater/Pererira/O'Neil--Six of this colt’s seven starts have come sprinting and against state-bred horses, with a couple of wins to show for his efforts. He stepped out of the Cal-bred races for the first time last month and was runner-up facing entry level allowance company. The farthest he’s raced is 1-mile, and that came at Los Alamitos in a third-place finish in the King Glorious Stakes, a race won in 2014 by a 2-yo named California Chrome. Is in good form, but this is the big stage now.

11 - Irish Freedom /Bejarano/Baffert--The highlight for this colt after two starts, was his maiden win in his debut last summer. After being away for over six months, he returned early last month and was given the opportunity against first level allowance rivals in his first route try, finishing fifth. His effort there was okay, considering he needed a race, but he should be back in against that level of competition, rather than be facing this group.

12 - Midnight Pleasure/Theriot/Ruis-- Colt has been okay so far. Owns a win and two third place finishes in four career starts. Won his debut at Del Mar last summer and followed that with a decent third in the G1 Del Mar Futurity in September. Was third again last time out again in an allowance optional claiming company over on this track last month, That followed on the heels of a 5-month break after a fourth-place finish in the G1 Frontrunner Stakes last fall. 

13 - Royal Mo/Stevens/Sheriffs--From the connections that gave us Zenyatta and Derby winner Giacomo, this colt wired a maiden field going 1-mile in his third start to close out his juvenile year. He opened his 3-yo campaign in identical fashion to win the Robert Lewis Stakes. He then headed to Oaklawn for the Rebel, but had no excuse for his disappointing ninth-place finish. Looks to turn around his last race form and also prove he can compete successfully in top stakes company.

Analysis:  With the absence of Mastery, the race has become a wide-open contest and that is main reason why so many 3-yr old horses have come out of the woodwork for a chance to stamp their “go to Louisville” ticket. 

For me, too many questions arise and too many variables abound, making this contest very tough and difficult to decipher, but I’ll do the best I can. 

Since the beginning of the current Santa Anita meet last December, a total of just six races have been run at the 9-furlong distance, but front-runners have been successful nearly 85% of the time. That bodes well for Gormley, who seems comfortable running on the lead. Last race, he was unable to outrun Mastery to the front, and backed up after battling for a half- mile, However, he did wire the field in the G1 Frontrunner Stakes and basically won the Sham in a front running head-to-head battle with American Anthem. The latter race was run over the sloppy Santa Anita surface, and with rain in the forecast on Saturday in Arcadia, it helps strengthen the basic case for Gormley. He’s the lone G1 winner in the field and may even have a slight class edge. If he goes untested early, he could scamper home a winner.

The rest of the field is basically made up of early/pressers and mid-pack stalkers or closers. If one of the early/pressers decide to get bold and challenge Gormley early, it may take the starch out of the Sheriffs runner, setting it up for one of the others from off the pace. If that scenario unfolds, who can rate in behind and finish strongest? My best guess, and it’s just a guess, would be, Reach The World. The Tapit colt is well-bred to handle the distance and possesses the strongest BRIS final fraction with his finishing kick to the wire in his last race. His lightning quick work should have him ready for a big race, and maybe even a winning race.

Play: If I can get anywhere near the 9-2 morning line on Gormley he’s my win bet. I’ll exacta box with Reach The World. If odds dictate, a win saver on Reach The World.  For tri’s and super’s, use any horse that you fancy.

Good luck, and as always, enjoy the race.

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