The Santa Anita Derby has long been a great race. The list of legends that have won this race over the years is remarkable - Triple Crown winner Affirmed, Winning Colors, Sunday Silence, A.P. Indy, Point Given and, more recently, dual Classic winners I'll Have Another and California Chrome. Even last year's winner, Dortmund, did the race proud - and would have done more if it weren't for his generationally talented stablemate American Pharoah.
The race went through a dark period for a while when it was run on a synthetic track and California horses weren't at their best. It's back now, though, and California sits at the top of the three year old heap these days. There are some very nice horses in this race - and the two best California-based runners this year may very well be running their final prep elsewhere - Nyquist won the Florida Derby impressively and will likely be the Kentucky Derby favorite, and Cupid runs in next weekend's Arkansas Derby.
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There are 10 horses entered for this year's edition of the Santa Anita Derby. At the risk of oversimplifying things, we are going to limit our focus here on just three. These three all know each other well - they were the Top 3 finishers in the San Felipe Stakes in their last outing. Anything can happen in a horse race, but it would not be particularly shocking to see them finish in the Top 3 again here. They are certainly head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the field.
Mor Spirit, Gary Stevens, 8/5: You certainly can't argue with the connections of this runner. Trainer Bob Baffert has won this race seven times previously, including last year. Gary Stevens has won the race nine times, including with two horses that he went on to win Triple Crown races aboard. Baffert and Stevens have won this race three times together - with Indian Charlie and General Challenge in 1998 and 1999 and with eventual Preakness and Belmont winner Point Given in 2001. Now Baffert is at the top of his game. Stevens - 53 years old, riding on a fake knee, and three years removed from a five-year retirement - doesn't ride a heavy schedule at all, but he is still as dangerous as they come in big races and is a real asset with a horse that he gets along with. This horse was the top Derby hope in the Baffert stable after wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity in December and the Robert B. Lewis in February. Those hopes dimmed somewhat, though, with his effort in the San Felipe. Danzig Candy set the pace, and Mor Spirit just couldn't chase him down, ultimately finishing second. It wasn't a great race by any means for the horse, but it is one that he could easily have learned from and advance from. Ultimately, it still feels like this is the best of the horses in the field on their best day, and he is a deserving favorite - and my pick in this one.
Danzig Candy, Mike Smith, 9/5: I spent a long time in the preview of the last horse talking about the legendary older jockey, so I should do the same here. Smith is just three years younger than Smith, and he's only slightly more active these days than Stevens is. However, he's every bit as dangerous in the biggest of races. A Stevens-Smith showdown is never a bad thing, and it adds a great wrinkle to this race. This horse had a disastrous eighth-place debut in November but bounced back to win impressively in December when Smith took over the ride. He then won an allowance race in February before making his stakes debut in the San Felipe. His win there was somewhat unexpected, but it was no fluke - he set a fast early pace and never gave it up. He posted a bullet work on a busy work day since that race, too, so his form is definitely good. He'll be setting the pace, and he's obviously dangerous.
Exaggerator, Kent Desormeaux, 4/1: This son of Curlin, ridden by Kent Desormeaux and trained by his brother Keith, is a very experienced horse - this race will be his ninth career start and seventh graded stakes appearance. He has won two stakes and has some solid results as well - a respectable fourth after a troubled trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and a solid second to Nyquist in the San Vicente. In the San Felipe he was bumped hard early on. He recovered nicely and was second in the stretch, but he drifted pretty badly and Mor Spirit was charging so he lost a spot to third. It was a solid race, but I see him as a clear step behind the top two.
Long shot - Smokey Image, Victor Espinoza, 15/1: Espinoza has won this race twice and has won five of the last six Triple Crown races - including all three last year - so any horse he is on this time of year is worth a look. This horse was undefeated in six starts coming into the San Felipe. He was taking a step up in class, but he had trained very well and seemed ready. He just didn't fire on the day at all. He got pushed around and forced wide, and he weakened down the stretch. He was never a threat and wound up fifth in the six-horse field. He is better than that, though, and has again trained very well leading up to this race. He will be useful to use in exotics. Hopefully he gets a piece of the action and drives up the payoffs otherwise depressed by the low odds of the favorites.
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Read more articles by Trevor Whenham
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