Sham stands taller than rival Derby preps

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Authentic_SA_Benoit_photo
Authentic finished first in the Sham Stakes on his way to winning the September 2020 Kentucky Derby. The last two runnings of the Santa Anita prep have been stepping stones to the ultimate victory at Churchill Downs. (Benoit photo courtesy of Santa Anita)

Louisville, Ky.

There was nothing like winters not so long ago. Those frosty days spent by the warm glow of the wide screen watching Kentucky Derby preps. They used to come every week in the old days, you know.

“Gee, grandpa. What was it like back in 2021?”

Yeah. The old days. The calendar for 2022 really has changed. No longer are the Jerome and Smarty Jones and Sham stakes on three separate dates. They are all together this weekend on New Year’s Day. Part of that is a by-product of Jan. 1 falling on a Saturday, but this clustering of Derby points preps is trending.

There will be entire stretches of weeks at a time without anyone racing for points to qualify for May 7 at Churchill Downs. After Saturday’s tripleheader, it will be three weeks until the Lecomte beckons at New Orleans.

Look at February. The Withers, Holy Bull and Sam F. Davis are on the 5th, one day before the Robert B. Lewis. This past year the Holy Bull was a week before the Withers and the Sam and the Bob. Chalk it up to a more rigid regimen of prep habits for trainers and their horses.

This does not obviate the fact that some preps have been more useful than others for handicappers to parse true Derby contenders from all those horses who will be completely forgotten when the mint juleps are flowing like toothpaste in a bathroom drinking glass. (Which is how they taste.)

Bob Baffert has turned the $100,000 Grade 3 Sham Stakes into wintertime spring training for his recent Kentucky Derby winners. Two years ago Authentic finished first in the Sham and the San Felipe, placed second in the Santa Anita Derby, won the Haskell and then took the COVID-delayed Derby. Last year the late Medina Spirit was runner-up to his former stablemate Life Is Good in the Sham before winning the Bob Lewis, finishing second in the San Felipe and Santa Anita Derby and then crossing first in the Derby.

Feel free to insert the weekly asterisk on Baffert here and how the 2022 Sham, named for Secretariat’s foil in 1973, may be a sham, named as a supposed, 17th-century contraction for shame. Whether a Baffert star has to be transferred to another trainer to make him eligible for the Derby is a matter for a later day. For now it is wise to remember his horses have won the Sham a record seven times. No other trainer has won more than twice in 21 previous runnings.

In a field of only five, Baffert will be represented in Saturday’s two-turn mile by frontrunning, graded-stakes victor Rockefeller (8-5), the morning-line favorite, and the stalking maiden winner Newgrange (2-1).

Looking at times like a green 2-year-old, Rockefeller still got an 83 Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form for his Nov. 7 win in the Grade 3 Nashua. That was a one-turn mile at Belmont Park that came five weeks after he finished seven lengths up the track in fourth place behind Corniche in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. There was certainly no shame in that performance. Unless Baffert wants leading California rider Flavien Prat to take back and chase Newgrange, there is every reason to think this $750,000 Medaglia d’Oro colt will try to lead the race from gate to wire.

With the Baffert pair forecast to take most of the betting money, the next alternative is Mackinnon (3-1). The $285,000 American Pharoah colt is owned primarily by Colorado Avalanche defenseman Erik Johnson and named for teammate Nathan MacKinnon. (There is no word yet on why the horse is registered with a lower-case “k” in his name.) He had excuses for his fourth-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Before that came three wins on the grass, including two stakes.

After nearly two months off, Mackinnon makes the switch back to the dirt Saturday for trainer Doug O’Neill. The first time did not go so well. That was a fourth-place debut last spring at Del Mar. In spite of his being bred for the turf, Mackinnon has done some growing up. His backers will hope that translates into a strong performance Saturday on the main track at Santa Anita.

Mackinnon made a huge move to make up eight places and four lengths in the Breeders’ Cup. Oviatt Class (7-2) did much the same closing from 11th to fifth an hour before that in the Juvenile. That was in a loss to Corniche as was his third-place finish in the American Pharoah. That day Oviatt Class was 3¼ lengths better than Rockefeller. If the main track is kind to closers Saturday, why couldn’t that happen again for this Bernardini colt trained by Keith Desormeaux?

Oviatt Class’s only two losses since he broke his maiden were to Corniche and Pappacap in Grade 1 races. Neither of those colts is walking through that tunnel Saturday, so my money will be on Oviatt Class in a win bet – and on top of Rockefeller in a cold exacta.

Saturday’s other two Derby preps, also worth 10-4-2-1 points to the top four finishers eligible to compete at Churchill Downs, have not produced any sort of yield that could be taken seriously come the Kentucky spring. The Jerome has been run for 155 years, but this is only the 10th time it has been featured in the Aqueduct winter. Neither of its only two graduates finished better than 11th at Churchill. It has been three years since the Smarty Jones even produced a Derby starter. None of its horses has done better than eighth in the big race.

It is true that the Sham’s reputation as a prep has benefited from Baffert’s success the past couple years, but it goes beyond that. Santa Anita has produced seven of the last 10 Derby winners, including I’ll Have Another and Nyquist for O’Neill and California Chrome for the recently retired Art Sherman. It is not all Baffert.

That brings to mind the Bob Lewis, the next Derby points prep at Santa Anita. It has been even hotter than the Sham in leading horses to roses in Kentucky. Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie finished one-three in both the Bob and the Derby this year. I’ll Have Another won both races 10 years ago. Firing Line and Dortmund, who hit the board behind American Pharoah in the 2015 Derby, came out of the Bob.

“Gee, grandpa. Why do those California races mean so much more than all the others?”

My response might be, “Ah, no specific reason.” At this point, it takes too much effort to come up with a better answer.

Racing notes and opinions

Home Brew (3-1) got a shot of Lasix and led the whole way Dec. 4, winning as a 2-5 favorite in a one-mile allowance race at Oaklawn. Now the Street Sense colt bred and owned by Gary and Mary West is the morning-line favorite for the two-turn, $250,000 Smarty Jones Stakes, also covering a mile at Oaklawn. The full field of 14 new 3-year-olds includes black-type stakes runner-up Barber Road (4-1), third-place Cool Papa G (6-1) from the same Churchill Downs race, Kentucky Jockey Club also-ran Ben Diesel (5-1) and recent stakes winner Kavod (5-1). A $3,500 colt by Lea, Kavod landed in Chris Hartman’s barn after he was claimed for $50,000 from a Churchill Downs race that he won. Also on and off Lasix, he appears to have a turn of foot that could translate well in this race that does not have any obvious pacesetter. Kavod should carry every bit of his morning-line odds and could be the story of the day coming out of Hot Springs, Ark. He gets my win-place bet.

When Rockefeller was shipped east by Baffert to win the Nov. 7 running of the Nashua Stakes at Belmont Park, a stakes-winning Uncle Mo colt finished a game second. That was the first loss in three starts for Cooke Creek (5-2), who comes back from nearly two months off to start from the rail as the morning-line favorite in Saturday’s $150,000 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct. Ohtwoohthreefive (7-2) makes the move from turf to dirt after finishing a close second in a $100,000, 8½-furlong stakes race Nov. 27 at Aqueduct, but he may not enjoy what is likely to be a sloppy track. The $600,000 Tapit colt Courvoisier (5-1) returns to the scene of a maiden-breaking win last month, cutting back from 1⅛ miles for trainer Kelly Breen in this one-turn mile. Hagler (4-1) brings early speed from his outside post and should benefit from both the long run to the turn and the wet conditions in his bid for a third straight victory. If it were dry, I would lean to Courvoisier. Since this looks more like a regatta, give me Hagler in a straight win bet.

The scheduled post times and National Weather Service forecasts for Saturday’s three Kentucky Derby preps:

* Jerome at Aqueduct, 3:50 p.m. EST: Rain with a high near 56, south wind to 7 mph and a 70 percent chance of a quarter- to a half-inch of rain.

* Smarty Jones at Oaklawn, 5:13 p.m. EST: There is a 70 percent chance of morning showers and thunderstorms with a slight chance of showers after that. Partly sunny in the afternoon. After an early high near 64 by 1 p.m. EST, the temperature will fall to around 55 during the remainder of the day. South-southwest wind (homestretch headwind) of around mph will become west-northwest (tailwind) in the afternoon with gusts as high as 30 mph.

* Sham at Santa Anita, 6:05 p.m. EST: Sunny with a high near 59 and northeast wind around 5 mph.

This is my last column for VSiN.com. With my move to Louisville last spring, most of my work is found these days at HorseRacingNation.com. That is where the Ron Flatter Racing Pod will continue to be posted starting next Friday. Thank you for your interest this column during the past five years. More important, thank you for your continued interest in this great sport.

The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features owner Kosta Hronis and trainer John Sadler talking about rising sprint star Flightline. Ron Mack discussing Legacy Equine Academy’s mission to make racing more inclusive. VSiN’s Vinny Magliulo handicaps weekend races, including Kentucky Derby points preps at Aqueduct, Oaklawn and Santa Anita. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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