Why some want Life Is Good to look bad in 2021

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

A debut winner with Mike Smith riding him in November at Del Mar, Life Is Good is the odds-on favorite to win Saturday’s Grade 3 Sham Stakes for trainer Bob Baffert. (Benoit photo/Santa Anita)

Las Vegas

There is a term that I learned living in Australia that applies well in so many facets of life. It is the tall-poppy syndrome, based on a flower that outgrows others in a field. It must not be allowed to stand out, so it is cut down.

It is like the show-biz saying that Hollywood eats its young. The behavioral condition known as schadenfreude. Or mom’s declaration that we can’t have anything nice in the house.

Speaking of Life Is Good …

Is he not the quintessence of the tall poppy? Four days before Thanksgiving he dared to cruise to a 9½-length victory in his debut for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert with Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith riding and the nation’s No. 1 stallion Into Mischief as his sire and the China Horse Club and WinStar Farm as his blue-blooded owners.

Now he is the object of envy and jealousy and all those things that go with being the futures favorite for the Kentucky Derby. It is not a consensus; his 10-1 odds at William Hill Nevada are longer than only Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Essential Quality at 8-1. But Circa Sports has him favored at 9-1 (actually plus-950), and in global wagering he is 7-1.

“I think the Breeders’ Cup winner should be the favorite right now,” Baffert told VSiN this week on the Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “We have very short memories in this business. It’s what’s happened lately.”

To take short prices or even Life Is Good’s 12-1 opener here in Las Vegas right after his first race Nov. 22, there had to be confidence that (a) he will definitely stay fit through May 1, (b) he will not ever carry longer odds and (c) he must be a super horse.

If that really is the thinking, then this is the last chance to get a futures ticket on him at these, ahem, long odds. If one must fall prey to this shiny object, the time to do it is right now – or at least before the books take down Derby betting for a few hours Saturday before and after the $100,000 Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. That is where Life Is Good (2-5) is the odds-on, morning-line favorite to defeat four other colts in their first race as 3-year-olds. It is also the west coast’s first Kentucky Derby points prep of 2021 – and Life Is Good’s first time racing around two turns.

“He’s very fast, but he’s going to have to control that speed,” Baffert said. “I’ve learned in this game that when you send them two turns, that’s when you know for sure. I don’t see why he shouldn’t. But if he goes too fast, that’s the whole key.”

Medina Spirit (100-1 best Las Vegas price in Derby futures), Parnelli (100-1), Waspirant (200-1) and Uncle Boogie (not listed in Derby futures) are cast as supporting players Saturday afternoon. If Life Is Good blows them all away, he will not see 10-1 again. He will be the consensus Derby futures favorite – at least until Essential Quality races again.

If he is not the tall poppy in every bettor’s eyes yet, he might be about 1½ minutes after 7 p.m. EST Saturday. Skeptics and value hunters have had their pruning shears sharpened for nearly six weeks. It would be repetitive to drone on about why it is not a good idea to make a futures bet on Life is Good or any short-priced horse right now. But what about just for this weekend’s race?

Using every available optic, he carries the best speed numbers into the race. His closest pursuer on the backstretch could be his stablemate Medina Spirit (6-1), a less well-bred debut winner three weeks ago at Los Alamitos. His blinkers come off, but that might be so Abel Cedillo can get him out of post 1 in a hurry and give Life Is Good a controlled pace target.

The only two starters with experience at two turns belong to trainer John Shirreffs. Parnelli (5-2), a $500,000 colt by Quality Road, lost to eventual Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity winner Spielberg in a Nov. 1 maiden race. He comes off a well-received workout and could carry Drayden Van Dyke to an early lead Saturday. Or he could do as he did when he broke his maiden on his fourth try, and that is race from just off the pace. Waspirant (15-1) also goes with blinkers off, suggesting there may not be much social distancing up front going into the first turn.

Uncle Boogie (12-1) might be the wild card. Trained by Andrew Lerner, 31, he was a distant second to Red Flag in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar. If there is a colt that may try to pick up the pieces of a speed breakdown, he would be it. More likely, though, this company is just too fast for him.

A cold Life Is Good-Parnelli exacta could yield a few dollars. A Parnelli-Life Is Good exacta would bring a few more, but it is not worth boxing them. Instead of taking a stand for a small return on a vertical investment, the better play would be to work into the Sham horizontally from the $200,000 Grade 2 San Gabriel, the 1⅛-mile turf race Saturday at 6:30 p.m. EST for older horses.

There are no tall poppies here. All seven of the San Gabriel entrants are flawed. Bob And Jackie (4-1) is a lightly raced 5-year-old that has never won anything bigger than a restricted stakes, nor has he ever raced nine furlongs. Adding blinkers, Anothertwistafate (5-2) is another 5-year-old without much race experience, and he fizzled as a favorite in his turf debut for new trainer Peter Miller. Multiplier (12-1) is 1-for-14 on turf. Long-ago Grade 1 winners Next Shares (4-1) and Bowies Hero (6-1) and recent claim Cleopatra’s Strike (15-1) are old guys that went winless in 2020.

The process of elimination leaves morning-line favorite Count Again (2-1), a 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding that won the Grade 2 Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar five weeks ago. He is a closer that showed at Woodbine he needs a little bit of pace ahead of him. At 1:13.65 that is what he got three races ago to win the 1¼-mile Grade 3 Singspiel. At 1:17.23 and 1:41.97, that is not what he got in October finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Northern Dancer Turf.

It would seem that Bob And Jackie and maybe Anothertwistafate will force honest fractions early, so the play here is to key Count Again in the San Gabriel and pair him with Life Is Good and Parnelli in a chalky rolling double.

As for Derby futures, please allow me to use another Australian saying. Fair dinkum. If Life Is Good shows that he can dominate a so-so field around two turns, then he will be closer to being fair dinkum. Legitimate. Real.

But since such a victory will shorten his odds, he will continue to grow higher than most of the rest of the prospective Derby field. That will invite even more envy and jealousy and skepticism.

Come to think of it, wouldn’t Tallpoppy Syndrome make a good name for a horse?

Racing notes and opinions

With showers in the Friday forecast for New York, the Jerome Stakes around a one-turn mile Aqueduct is the first Derby points prep of the new year – and therefore the first of the 2020-21 season for 3-year-olds. Cutting back from 8½ furlongs around two turns, maiden winner Swill (7-5) is expected to be favored after finishing fourth the day after Thanksgiving in the Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs. Eagle Orb (9-5) may contest the pace trying to make it two in a row at Aqueduct after winning a state-bred sprint stakes Nov. 14. The play here, though, will be on Original (7-2), a $425,000 Quality Road colt that trainer John Terranova saddled for a maiden victory over 8½ furlongs of yielding turf Nov. 14. That was with blinkers off after a troubled, last-place debut in an October sprint at Belmont Park. José Lezcano might just keep his silks clean going gate to wire on Original. The Jerome is posted for Friday at 3:50 p.m. EST.

This week’s best Derby prep may be the one that carries no qualifying points Saturday at 4:45 p.m. EST. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Mutasaabeq (5-2) returns to the dirt and is the morning-line favorite against nine rivals in the $100,000 Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park. Another Into Mischief colt, he was a Grade 2 turf winner before finishing a pedestrian 10th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Two consecutive sharp workouts may have looked impressive, but his afternoons have not. Pickin Time (3-1) won the Grade 3 Nashua for trainer Kelly Breen before he was a distant fourth in the Aqueduct slop four weeks ago in the Grade 2 Remsen. Like Saturday’s race, that was a one-turn mile, so Pickin Time should be on anyone’s Mucho Macho Man tickets. So should frontrunning long shot Raison d’Air (12-1), a 13-length winner in his only fast dirt start. That was a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park. A course horse for big bucks? Why not?

There is no shortage of columns from writers outlining their votes for the Eclipse Awards. Interestingly enough, the number that have been written is equal to the number that are self-serving. I will offer my ballot without prolix explanation at the bottom of this column next week. It may be shorter and more to the point, but rest assured, it will be just as self-serving.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod at VSiN.com/podcasts. Trainer Bob Baffert discusses his top prospect Life Is Good as well as the ups and downs of the past year. XBTV’s Zoe Cadman previews featured stakes at Santa Anita. Rampart Casino’s Duane Colucci handicaps weekend races.  The RFRP is available for download and free subscription at Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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