You will pardon me if I do not get all goosey over the next 10 preps for the Kentucky Derby. Frankly, they do not matter.
“The early races mean so little,” trainer John Shirreffs said. “They’re almost just experience races, because to get to the Derby you have to win or place in some of the bigger purses, and they all come later.”
The 10 points the winners get for races like Saturday’s $100,000 Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita have proven to be negligible compared with the 50- and 100-point races that start in seven weeks. When we get to races like the Risen Star and Fountain of Youth, those will be the preps that start to fill the Derby field.
No wonder Shirreffs will not squirm about Honor A.P. being unable to race this weekend. A 5¼-length maiden winner with a 91 Beyer in October, the colt sired by Honor Code has what sounds like a minor injury. “When he came back from his schooling (Tuesday) he was off in his right foot,” Shirreffs said. “X-rays were OK, so we’ll just have to wait and see.”
The news did not create any sort of panic in Derby futures. Honor A.P. is holding steady at 14-1 at William Hill in Nevada, a recently shortened 16-1 off shore at Bovada and a best price of 33-1 in Europe, according to Oddschecker.com.
Without Honor A.P. to contend with, trainer Bob Baffert has a pair of new 3-year-olds that figure to absorb most of the betting dollars in the Sham. Ridden by Drayden Van Dyke, the front-running, morning-line favorite Authentic (8-5) has the best Brisnet rating coming into the race after winning his debut by 1½ lengths two months ago at Del Mar as a 3-5 favorite. Getting red-hot jockey Joel Rosario this weekend, the deep-closing Azul Coast (5-2) won as a 2-1 favorite with Van Dyke in his first race last month at Los Alamitos, running four lengths clear on a good, sealed track.
“He’s a light, little horse,” Baffert said of Azul Coast, 75-1 in William Hill’s Derby futures. “He looked great first time out. He went a mile, got taken out to the parking lot on the first turn and came back to win.”
Although Authentic is 50-1 at William Hill and 55-1 at Bovada, he is coming into stakes company sooner than Baffert had intended.
“We wanted to run him here in an allowance race, but there’s just not a lot of (3-year-old) winners here,” Baffert said last week at Santa Anita. “He’ll be hooking some nice horses. It’ll be a good test for him. He does everything effortlessly. He’s fast, but he’s not a typical Into Mischief. If you look at him on paper it looks like a sprinter. But he’s a tall, leggy horse. He’s not built like a sprinter.”
Posted for Saturday at 4:30 p.m. EST, the Sham is not lacking for early pace in the field of six. Richard Baltas’s Uncaptured Hero (6-1) could be on the lead, but the question is whether the Super Saver colt will last for the full two-turn mile. Baltas should also have another forward goer in Taishan (5-2), a Twirling Candy colt that was literally in faster company finishing fifth to Ginóbili and Honor A.P. in August at Del Mar before he broke his maiden in November over the mile at Santa Anita.
Doug O’Neill’s colt Scoring (15-1) might also figure in setting the pace. Although he comes in a winner in his only start, that was more than six months ago, and it was only because he was promoted by stewards after he crossed second. Workouts coming off his long break have not been cause for any perceptible buzz.
Zimba Warrior (6-1) fills out the field with one win in his five races for Keith Desormeaux, but that was on the county-fair circuit at Fresno, so this looks like an out-of-his-league jump.
With all the speed in the race, and since I always have that devious desire to back the “other Baffert,” I will key Azul Coast over Taishan and Authentic.
But will I jump on any of these horses in Derby futures? Not at anything shorter than 100-1.
Remember, at this time in their Derby-winning years, Always Dreaming (2017) and Country House (2019) had yet to break their maidens, and Justify (2018) had yet to race. Not that waiting out the deflated, early-winter preps is the only way to wear the roses come May 2.
“I really like the idea of campaigning,” Shirreffs told VSiN. “I like the idea of getting on a schedule and running a schedule once a month, every three weeks, however the races are planned out. But now you really have to plan on the last race really being the big one.”
Racing notes and opinions
At 7, Cleopatra’s Strike (2-1) brings the most experience to a turf race full of it this weekend at Santa Anita. He is the morning-line favorite among the seven older horses – mostly geldings – racing nine furlongs in the $200,000 Grade 2 San Gabriel Stakes at 6 p.m. EST Saturday. Trained by Phil D’Amato and ridden by Ábel Cedillo, Cleopatra’s Strike won the John Henry Turf Cup at Santa Anita before finishing fourth last month in the Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar. Both races were longer than Saturday’s 1⅛-mile feature. With a lack of early speed in this race, getting an early lead may be more important. That means that this race may not set up for closers like Desert Stone (3-1), loser of eight in a row, and Majestic Eagle (3-1), a recent Santa Anita stakes winner. The choice here is a value play with Chosen Vessel (10-1), fifth in the Hollywood Turf Cup and a first-place finisher in two his last four starts. The hope is that the cutback from 1½ miles and a 103 Brisnet rating last time out set him up for the upset in a shorter race over Cleopatra’s Strike, Majestic Eagle and pace-setting North County Guy (8-1).
Eclipse Award ballots were due Thursday from roughly 270 media and racing-office voters. We were required to submit a top three in each category from which we did not abstain. Here is how I voted:
* Horse of the Year: 1st Bricks And Mortar, 2nd Mitole, 3rd Midnight Bisou.
* 2-year-old male: 1st Structor, 2nd Independence Hall, 3rd Storm The Court.
* 2-year-old female: 1st British Idiom, 2nd Bast, 3rd Sharing.
* 3-year-old male: 1st Maximum Security, 2nd Omaha Beach, 3rd Code Of Honor.
* 3-year-old filly: 1st Covfefe, 2nd Guarana, 3rd Cambier Parc.
* Older dirt male: 1st Mitole, 2nd Vino Rosso, 3rd McKinzie.
* Older dirt female: 1st Midnight Bisou, 2nd Come Dancing, 3rd Spiced Perfection.
* Male sprinter: 1st Mitole, 2nd World Of Trouble, 3rd Imperial Hint.
* Female sprinter: 1st Covfefe, 2nd Come Dancing, 3rd Spiced Perfection.
* Male turf horse: 1st Bricks And Mortar, 2nd World Of Trouble, 3rd Mo Forza.
* Female turf horse: 1st Sistercharlie, 2nd Vasilika, 3rd Uni.
* Owner: 1st Klaravich Stables and Bill Lawrence, 2nd Peter Brant, 3rd Gary Barber.
* Breeder: 1st Godolphin, 2nd George Strawbridge Jr., 3rd Woodford Thoroughbreds.
* Jockey: 1st Javier Castellano, 2nd Írad Ortiz Jr., 3rd John Velázquez.
* Trainer: 1st Chad Brown, 2nd Steve Asmussen, 3rd Brad Cox.
I always abstain from the steeplechase and apprentice-jockey categories, because I have not followed them all year, particularly since most of the competitors are at tracks that are not my primary focus. For an explanation of why I voted the way I did, check out the Ron Flatter Racing Pod.
Shots fired. Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, who trains Code Of Honor, told Tom Pedulla for Horse Racing Nation that the team in charge of Maximum Security “chickened out all the time” and that he is “not a fan.” He pointed out Maximum Security was conspicuous by his absence from big races after being disqualified from an apparent victory in the Kentucky Derby. McGaughey went on to take a swipe at Eclipse voters, saying “some of those guys ... wouldn’t know Code Of Honor from my dog.” Never mind that voting had not even closed when he said it, but Grade 1 victories still mean something, and Maximum Security managed to show up and collect three of them despite the Derby DQ and his supposedly ducking races. Code Of Honor went 2-for-5 in Grade 1s. I don’t know about Shug’s dog. Frankly, I was stunned by his comments. Whether it was his intent or not, to see them posted at the voting deadline looked calculated. And that is putting it as kindly as Shug normally sounds.
Add Maximum Security: As reported first by David Grening of the Daily Racing Form on New Year’s Day, Coolmore has bought a 50 percent share of the colt and will partner Gary and Mary West for the rest of his racing days, including next month’s $20 million Saudi Cup, and all of his stallion career. Maximum Security will eventually stand at Ashford Stud in Versailles, Ky. The price tag on the sale was not reported.
This has absolutely nothing to do with racing other than the fact that I met him on a trip to the Breeders’ Cup. Jack Sheldon, who died Thursday at age 88, was the raspy-voiced singer who performed songs like “Conjunction Junction” between Saturday morning cartoons on ABC’s “Schoolhouse Rock.” He played lead trumpet in the Mort Lindsey Orchestra and stoked the bon mots on “The Merv Griffin Show.” He even played an unintended stool pigeon on the short-lived sitcom “Run, Buddy, Run” on CBS. I met Sheldon a little more than 11 years ago when he was doing a trumpeting and story-telling gig at the old Jax Bar & Grill on North Brand Boulevard in Glendale, Calif. This was back in my single days. My date who patiently waited for me to get done covering the championships at Santa Anita implored me to “please step away from the trumpet player” when I introduced myself between sets. A 15-minute conversation ensued; Sheldon might have even asked for a horse tip. In addition to paying my feeble tribute to the man, this is just a way of saying that one never knows where a trip to the racetrack may lead. Perhaps to an old-school, jazz trumpeter who was part of the soundtrack of my youth.
On the Ron Flatter Racing Pod: Trainers Bob Baffert and John Shirreffs talk about their 3-year-olds that are contenders on the Kentucky Derby and Oaks trails. Aidan Butler of The Stronach Group discusses reforms and issues that continue to be front and center at Santa Anita. There is also a preview of Saturday’s Sham Stakes and San Gabriel Stakes plus Ron’s votes for the 2019 Eclipse Awards.