Photo: Shigeki Kikkawa
On the first Saturday in January, trainers and racing fans can catch an early glimpse at some of California's leading contenders that could be vying for the biggest prize in North American horse racing on the first Saturday in May, when the $100,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita gets the 2013 "Road To The Kentucky Derby" off and running (pun intended).The process for determining entry into the "The Run For The Roses" has changed. A new "points" system featuring 36 stakes races has been employed. The new system now serves as the criteria for determining the 20 Kentucky Derby starters, replacing the previous method of graded stakes earnings. Under the new points system, the top four finishers in each prep stakes will receive points at varying levels according to the historical importance of the race. The "Road To The Kentucky Derby" series has been divided into two phases: "The Kentucky Derby Prep Season" and "Kentucky Derby Championship Series." The prep season consists of 19 races run between late September and late February. Points are awarded to the top 4 finishers in each race on a 10-4-2-1 scale. The 2013 Sham Stakes is grouped in this initial phase.
The Grade 3 event, which undoubtedly is growing in prominence and each year is likely to feature a horse or two that will go on to Louisville, has brought together a good group of six newly-minted 3-year old runners, all of them with two-turn experience.The one-mile distance they attempt Saturday acts as a preliminary and a lead up to the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles on April 6th and, more importantly, a big step toward earning entry into the one-and-one-quarter mile Kentucky Derby on May 4th. The winner will have to impress here in order to harbor a legitimate shot at eventually making the Churchill Downs starting gate. First run in 2001, the Sham Stakes was previously run at 9 furlongs in mid-March. However, two seasons ago, Santa Anita moved up the contest to the beginning of January and reduced it to a flat-mile in order to provide a more logical launching point for horses with Kentucky Derby aspirations.
The Sham Stakes is named after the racehorse who ran in the early 1970's. Sham won the 1973 Santa Anita Derby, but unfortunately was a member of the same 3-year-old crop as the legendary Secretariat. Sham finished 2 1/2-lengths back of Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and was again runner-up to Secretariat two weeks later. Although Secretariat would go on to win the Belmont Stakes and the Triple Crown, Sham's noble effort against one of racing's all-time greatest has made him revered in the minds of racing fans.
The two most notable winners in the 12 previous runnings of the Sham would have to be Bob and John in 2006 and Colonel John in 2008. The latter, trained by Eoin Harty, would use the Sham as a steppingstone to winning to the Santa Anita Derby a month later. Colonel John would later add a win in the prestigious Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
Bob and John, trained by Bob Baffert, would follow his win in the Sham with a victory in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, which is the final major Kentucky Derby prep in New York. He would finish a disappointing 17th in the Kentucky Derby four weeks later. Baffert leads all trainers in Sham wins with two, while Victor Espinoza has the most among jockeys with three.
Baffert, along with trainer Doug O'Neill enter two horses apiece, comprising 75% of the field. So, here are the starters for this opening west coast leg of the 2013 Derby Trail whose points earnings count towards a gate berth in Louisville on May 4th.
1-DEN'S LEGACY/Gomez/Baffert--Most experienced runner in the group with eight lifetime starts, spending all but one race on either grass or synthetic. His only dirt try was a 5th place finish. Came charging hard with a strong finish to get 3rd in the CashCall Futurity a few weeks ago. One of many Baffert runners we'll see on the Derby Trail. He will take the top spot in his trainers barn with a win here.
2-GOLDENCENTS/Krigger/O'Neill--Owned in part by University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino's RAP Racing. Hasn't raced in seven weeks, but comes in with the best credentials after a very nice win in the Delta Jackpot back in November after running second to Shanghai Bobby in the Champagne at Belmont Park. Those efforts have him squarely on the Derby train to Louisville at the moment. Registered a couple of rapid six furlong workouts in preparation.
3-GREELEY AWESOME/Gutierrez/O'Neill--Finally got in the win column after seven tries, beating a group of lowly maiden claimers on synthetics. 'Nuff said.
4-DRY SUMMER/Talamo/Mullins--Away two months and appears to be a turf/synthetics horse. Doesn't inspire any confidence.
5-DIRTY SWAGG/Baze/Cho--In seven starts, he has twice faced Grade 1 competition (CashCall--Frontrunner), failing miserable both times. Picks up blinkers for this event.
6-MANANDO/Garcia/Baffert--Another Baffert horse that will be trying to solidify his place on the Derby scene. Makes his stakes debut after breaking his maiden on his 4th try early last month on the Cushion Track at Hollywood Park, but certainly has shown continued improvement each time he’s run. Recorded a bullet work following his win and his breeding suggests he should take to the dirt.
Speed is a horses best asset and both Goldencents and Manando have plenty of it. However, neither runner has not shown the versatility to relax behind the early pace and then respond. Unless one of the two decide to use this race as a rating experiment, I expect both horses to use their high early speed to get to the front. From a pace figure perspective, Goldencents appears the quicker of the two and he also owns the best speed figure: a deadly combination indeed. The shorter distance should prove beneficial, with a nice inside draw that will allow him to save all the ground. The concern is the layoff of nearly two months. Although he has worked smartly for his return, this IS a prep race and Goldencents probably won't be fully cranked for a top effort. He's the class of the field and just may be able to withstand the early pressure from Manando and then have enough left to fend off the late challenges, and if he does, he'll head straight for the Santa Anita winner's circle, but he could just as easily be weakened by the pace, and if that occurs, look for the other Baffert runner, Den's Legacy, to swoop by for victory.