By J. Keeler Johnson (“Keelerman”) Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Better late than never, the $400,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1) will be contested on Saturday at Santa Anita. The 1 1/8-mile Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race has attracted seven starters, representing some of the most talented 3-year-olds in California.
Let’s dig in and start handicapping!
#1 Friar’s Road: Though this $500,000 yearling purchase is still a maiden, he’s knocked heads with some pretty talented runners, including graded stakes winner Thousand Words and fellow Santa Anita Derby starter Shooters Shoot. A late-charging runner-up effort over 1 1/8 miles on May 2 at Oaklawn bodes well for Friar’s Road’s ability to handle the distance of Saturday’s test, but unless a blazing pace unfolds, a spot on the board might be the best this stoutly-bred son of Quality Road can hope for.
#2 Rushie: Since stretching out around two turns, this son of hot young sire Liam’s Map has been effective while facing tough company. He was a little green while claiming a 1 1/16-mile allowance race at Oaklawn last month, but he nevertheless showed tenacity to parlay pace-tracking tactics into a 1 1/4-length triumph over Fountain of Youth (G2) runner-up Candy Tycoon. Rushie has been firing off fast workouts and picks up high-percentage Flavien Prat (a 29% winner at Santa Anita this meet) for his stakes debut, suggesting he can be a player for the superfecta.
#3 Shooters Shoot: It’s safe to say Shooters Shoot has inherited the speed of his classy sprinter/miler sire Competitive Edge. Though Shooters Shoot lost his first four starts, he’s since won two straight, wiring a 1-mile maiden race at Santa Anita (beating Friar’s Road by 3 1/4 lengths) before battling to victory in a 1-mile allowance race at Oaklawn. Shooters Shoot was particularly impressive in the latter race, out-dueling heavy favorite Blackberry Wine through fast fractions of :45.87 and 1:09.94 to prevail by a neck. Shooters Shoot figures to set the Santa Anita Derby pace while breaking from post three and might give his pursuers an unexpectedly stiff tussle under hot jockey Abel Cedillo.
#4 Anneau d’Or: True, Anneau d’Or has failed to fire in two starts this season, finishing off the board in divisions of the Risen Star (G2) at Fair Grounds and Arkansas Derby (G1) at Oaklawn. But perhaps traveling across the country doesn’t agree with Anneau d’Or, who has yet to run a bad race in California. A stoutly-bred son of Medaglia d’Oro out of a Tapit mare, Anneau d’Or showed plenty of talent when dropping narrow decisions in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) last season, falling just short of a championship title. He continues to train as well as ever and could be poised for a rebound while staying home in California.
#5 Azul Coast: You can’t knock the tenacity Azul Coast displayed while rallying to victory in the 1 1/8-mile El Camino Real Derby over the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields-the race was wide-open in the stretch, but Azul Coast put everyone away with a final furlong in:12 flat to win by 1 1/4 lengths. But the race came back slow on the speed figure scales and Azul Coast was soundly beaten by stablemate Authentic in the Sham (G3) two starts back, so I’m going to oppose this resolute grinder while returning to dirt and facing tougher competition.
#6 Honor A. P.: When Honor A. P. produced a huge late rally to finish second in his debut sprinting 6 furlongs at Del Mar, it was immediately clear he had the talent to be a real runner. He delivered on those expectations two months later when stretching out in distance at Santa Anita, where he dominated a 1-mile maiden race by 5 1/4 lengths.
A hoof issue prevented Honor A. P. from contesting the Sham (G3), but patient trainer John Shirreffs regrouped and prepared the son of champion Honor Code for a run in the San Felipe (G2). After rating in fourth place early on under Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, Honor A. P. rallied around the far turn and stayed on strongly down the lane to finish just 2 1/4 lengths behind Authentic.
Considering Honor A. P. was returning from a five-month layoff, this was a very encouraging performance. He’s been cranking out fast workouts like clockwork since then, including a trio of stiff seven-furlong moves, so I’m optimistic he’ll be primed for a career-best effort in the Santa Anita Derby. If Shooters Shoot keeps Authentic occupied on the front end, a fitter Honor A. P. can come surging down the stretch to spring a mild upset.
#7 Authentic: It’s hard to knock the undefeated favorite, who has already used his brilliant front-running speed to record decisive victories in the Sham (G3) and San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita. Conditioned by nine-time Santa Anita Derby-winning trainer Bob Baffert, Authentic raced very greenly when crushing Azul Coast by 7 1/4 lengths in the Sham, but was much more professional in the San Felipe, suggesting he’s maturing into a more complete racehorse.
But Authentic can be a little headstrong at times, and if Shooters Shoot is intent on setting the pace, Authentic may be placed in the unfamiliar position of rating off the lead. The 1 1/8-mile distance is also a slight question mark, since Authentic’s pedigree (by Into Mischief out of a Mr. Greeley mare) is geared toward sprints and miles.
Authentic clearly possesses a world of talent and is a must-use runner for multi-race wagers. But he’ll be a short price in the betting, so for a win bet, I believe Honor A. P.-who may have more upside-offers better value.
First: Honor A. P.
Third: Anneau d’Or
Fourth: Shooters Shoot
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Santa Anita Derby?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as “Keelerman”) is a writer, videographer, voice actor, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.