I've hated a lot of things about this frustratingly dismal Kentucky Derby prep season, so when I say that I hated the Santa Anita Derby most of all, it really means something. It was just a total dog of a race - slow, ugly, and impossible to draw meaning from. It would be disappointing for any meaningful major Derby prep to be that lousy, never mind one that has produced five Triple Crown race wins in the last five years - two each from I'll Have Another and California Chrome, and one from Exaggerator.
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I guess I shouldn't be that surprised that the race didn't meet expectations, though - the first- and third-place finishers, Gormley and Royal Mo, have the same owner and trainer connections as 2005 Derby winner Giacomo, who is easily my least favorite wearer of the roses of all time. Now Gormley's heading to Kentucky, and he needs to be much better than he was in winning the Santa Anita if he wants to come out on top again. So, does he have it in him?
Last race: When you watched the field 'charge' up the stretch in the Santa Anita Derby it reminded you of watching water try to run uphill. It's not completely true, but it feels like I could have walked faster than they were running. They ran the last three furlongs in well over 40 seconds. That's glacial. Gormley settled off the fairly solid early pace, running fourth then fifth around the first turn and through the backstretch. He started moving around the final turn while four wide and prevailed in a wide-open dash for the line. Nothing about the win looked easy on the day.
Prior experience: Part of my frustration with the ugly win is that Gormley has shown he can be much better. After breaking his maiden in the first try in August he went out and won the FrontRunner at Santa Anita impressively against a small but strong field. Then he went to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and flopped - he had a rough start, never recovered mentally, and faded to seventh while visibly tiring. He bounced back very nicely to win his three year old debut in the Sham by prevailing in an epic stretch duel with American Anthem. The two horses were 13 lengths clear of third place. But then it was time for another really disappointing outing the San Felipe, the race that Mastery dominated and then was injured just past the finish line. Gormley never really fired and faded late to finish fourth. And that sets up the biggest issue I have with this colt - while his best is really impressive, he hasn't won a race I liked despite the Santa Anita Derby win since Jan. 7, and his two biggest races have really left me wanting. Do you get the sense I won't be betting on this horse?
Trainer: Despite my frustration with this colt and Giacomo, I actually have a whole lot of respect for John Shirreffs. The veteran trainer, who will turn 72 before the Belmont, has been training since 1978. He has trained his share of top horses, with none bigger than the great Zenyatta - also owned by the same owner as this colt. He doesn't frequently play the Triple Crown game but is obviously capable of doing so when he has the horse power. Shirreffs intends to keep this horse in California as long as he can, completing the major works where he is comfortable and more certain of having good weather before shipping to Kentucky just days before the race.
Jockey: There are definitely worse guys to have in the saddle for a Triple Crown race these days than Victor Espinoza. He won the Derby and Preakness in 2002 with War Emblem then repeated that feat in 2014 with California Chrome. A year later he outdid himself by winning the Triple Crown aboard the great American Pharoah. He hasn't been riding a heavy schedule the last couple of years, but if he has the horse under him he is as capable as anyone of winning on the biggest of days in this sport.
Breeding: Sire Malibu Moon is best known for being the sire of 2013 Derby winner Orb - another winner I don't wax about nostalgically. He's a solid stud up to the task of siring good horses, though, and he will be well represented in this Derby - he's also the damsire of Louisiana Derby winner Girvin. Girvin will be ridden in Kentucky by Mike Smith, who rode Giacomo for Shirreffs. Damsire Bernstein, who died far too young of colic, was brilliantly bred in Kentucky but had his best success on the track and in the breeding shed internationally. Gormley isn't the best-bred horse in the Derby, but his breeding is more than adequate for the challenge.
Odds: The oddsmakers at BetOnline are no more enthusiastic about the Santa Anita Derby than I am. They have him at +2500 to win the Derby, which places him behind 13 other runners. Given how prominent the Santa Anita Derby, and West Coast runners in general, have been in the Derby in recent years, that is not good. In the final Kentucky Derby future wager, held by Churchill Downs the week before the Santa Anita Derby, he went off at 42/1, so the 25/1 currently is actually a pretty significant improvement.
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