In recent years the Santa Anita Derby has been a hugely-important step on the Triple Crown trail. I'll Have Another won this race and both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness in 2012. California Chrome pulled off the same triple two years later. Dortmund won this race in 2015, and though he finished third in the Derby he was good enough to win it any year that the freakish American Pharoah wasn't entered. Last year Exaggerator won both the Santa Anita Derby and the Preakness. It's a real reversal for this race, which was mostly irrelevant for the period that it was run on a synthetic track.
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This year's Santa Anita Derby suffered a serious blow when the incredible Mastery was injured just after crossing the finish line in his last race. If Mastery was in this field it likely wouldn't be that large of a field. In his absence, though, 13 horses are lining up to come out on top of this wide-open field. Multiple entries is a theme here for sure - Doug O'Neill has four horses entered, Bob Baffert has three, and John Shirreffs has two. Those guys and others are entering horses that have shown promise, and hoping that they will become stars just in time. Baffert in particular has a lot on the line here - just two years removed from his Triple Crown, Baffert currently doesn't have a single horse with enough points to make the Derby field. Here are the highlights of the field (odds are the track morning line):
Iliad, Flavien Prat, 7/2: This horse, the best of O'Neill's posse, was not nearly good enough against Mastery last time out, but with that horse out he assumes the position as the provisional best of California. He still has a lot to prove, though. He's raw. After breaking his maiden in his second try, he beat a small field in the San Vicente - only Battle of Midway was in both that race and this one. And then it was that second in the San Felipe. He's a son of Ghostzapper, so I don't particularly question his stamina. I am skeptical of his class, though, and think the experience will hurt him. At this price I'll pass.
Gormley, Victor Espinoza, 9/2: This colt has serious talent but is as consistent as a yo-yo. After breaking his maiden in September he won the FrontRunner against a tough field very impressively. Next up was the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and he had a lousy outing en route to a seventh-place finish. He rebounded with another nice win against a strong crowd in the Sham in January but then was a horrible fourth in that San Felipe that Mastery dominated. If the pattern continues then he's due for a big race here and a flop in the Kentucky Derby. I don't trust him and will look elsewhere.
Reach the World, Mike Smith, 5/1: This horse didn't run as a two year old, which is a major knock on his Derby chances. This is only his fourth career start - another knock. And his first stakes race - another knock. He broke his maiden on the second try and then was second last time out in an allowance race won by Battle of Midway. There's a lot not to like, but Smith is a genius in Santa Anita stakes, Bob Baffert has won this race seven times, and the breeding is strong. The horse will take some action, so the price will likely fall a bit. It's hard to get excited about the value, but you can't ignore him entirely.
Battle of Midway, Corey Nakatani, 5/1: Here's another horse that has run only three times starting in January. I hate horses like this. After breaking his maiden impressively, he was favored in the San Vicente that Iliad won but finished only third in the five-horse field. Then he came back and beat Reach the World in that allowance race last time out. The breeding is strong for this guy. Sire Smart Strike sired the great Curlin and Preakness winner Lookin at Lucky and is the damsire of Derby winner Mine That Bird. Damsire Concerto rode a five-race winning streak into the 1997 Kentucky Derby but was a disappointing ninth behind Silver Charm. Nice breeding, but not enough to make me back this guy.
American Anthem, Martin Garcia, 5/1: This is the second of the Baffert horses and the far more attractive one in my mind. This son of Bodemeister was second in the Sham in his second career start, finishing narrowly behind Gormley. From there he headed to Oaklawn Park for the Rebel, in which he was favored. It was a total disaster. He had a really awful start and ripped a shoe off in the process. As a result he never fired and was a dismal 10th in the 11-horse field. How you feel about him here depends on your willingness to overlook that outing. He hasn't had a meaningful race since January, but he has been working brilliantly since that last race and appears ready. I'm a believer, and American Anthem is my choice to win.
Royal Mo, Gary Stevens, 10/1: The story here is quite similar to American Anthem's. He won a big race to win the Robert B. Lewis in January. Then he headed to the Rebel and had a terrible day, finishing just ahead of American Anthem. The difference is that he had no excuses and just had nothing left down the stretch. Sire Uncle Mo sired Derby winner Nyquist in his first crop, damsire Saint Ballado is all class, and I have a real soft spot for Stevens. However, none of that is enough to make me a believer here.
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