The Grade 1, $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes on Friday is a Breeders' Cup win-and-you're-in event for the 2021 Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1). The event is one of four stakes highlighting the opening day of Santa Anita's fall meet.
The 1 1/16-mile event has undergone a couple of name changes since it was first contested in 1970. Starting out as the Norfolk Stakes, the race name was changed to the FrontRunner Stakes in 2012. The name was changed in 2018 to honor Triple Crown hero American Pharoah, who won the race in 2014 and was later named champion 2-year-old.
Fast forward to 2021, this year's event attracted seven 2-year-old colts and geldings. Carded as Friday's eighth race, post time is 7:30 p.m. EDT.
No. 7 Pappacap (8-1) entered the Del Mar Futurity as the 4 3/4-length winner of the Best Pal Stakes (G2). After ducking shortly after the start and tugging hard through the first quarter, the Mark Casse trainee faded to a disappointing fourth, 5 1/2 lengths behind Pinehurst. Pappacap tuned up with a five-furlong bullet in 59.6 seconds. He moved smoothly over the track and was under a light hold through the stretch. This son of Gun Runner draws the far outside. He clearly didn't enjoy being on the rail in his last start, so we might see an improved effort.
No. 3 Finneus (12-1) checked in a distant second behind Pappacap in the Best Pal (G2). They reversed the roles when Pappacap could muster no better than a well-beaten fourth in the Del Mar Futurity while Finneus was again a distant second, this time behind Pinehurst. The Walter Solis trainee is an honest sort. He has never been out of the money in four starts and is multiple graded-placed. Finneus fired a pre-race bullet five furlongs in 59.6.
Corniche and Rockefeller graduated at first asking for Bob Baffert. Then the pair worked together for the Del Mar Futurity with a five-furlong move. Corniche was asked to sit three-quarters length behind his rival and to his outside. Rockefeller has the smoother gait of the pair, and Corniche was pushed throughout the work, never closing the distance. Rockefeller was timed in 59.8 while Corniche was clocked at 1:00.
On paper, No. 1 Corniche (6-5) had the more impressive debut as he drew off to a 4 1/2-length victory and stopped the clock in 1:03 for 5 1/2 furlongs, just a second off the track record. His 99 Brisnet speed figure was one of the highest of the month for 2-year-olds.
No. 6 Rockefeller (3-1) won his debut on talent. He wasn't the fastest out of the gate, but Abel Cedillo hustled him to the lead. Medaglia d'Oro’s son opened up through the stretch but tired while on the wrong lead. He switched late and was never in any danger as he sailed through the wire under a hand ride, 2 1/4 lengths in front. Rockefeller finished six furlongs in 1:11.18, but his final furlong was a pokey 13.28. He gets a jock switch to Flavian Pratt.
The Desormeaux brothers teamed up to send No. 4 Oviatt Class (3-1) to a 4 1/4-length win in his third start after stretching to a mile. Oviatt Class made it look easy; he made a sustained drive from the half-mile pole, motored past the leaders and got his final furlong in a decent 12.72. By Bernardini out of a Tiznow daughter, Oviatt Class has classic breeding and will appreciate the extra distance.
No. 5 Joker Boy (15-1) captured the restricted I'm Smokin Stakes by 3 1/2 lengths in his last start, and trainer Brian Koriner is ready to see whether this son of Practical Joke has what it takes, both around two turns and in open company. Joker Boy's speed figures fit with this group, and he has tactical speed
No. 2 Flying Drummer (10-1) would have won his debut but for a bob of the head. He made a late surge, but stablemate Montebello got the nod. That one returned to finish second in a pair of stakes, the Funny Cide at Saratoga and, more recently, the Capote Stakes at Los Alamitos. Flying Drummer bested the late-running Oviatt Class in their debut but was no match for that rival when they hooked up in their last race. This Bob Baffert charge is the weakest of his trio entered for the American Pharoah Stakes.
The favorite has hit the board in the last 10 editions of the American Pharoah, and four of them were, unsurprisingly, trained by Bob Baffert. The pacesetter/presser style is favored, although a closer has won.
Five of the seven entrants are pacesetter/pressers. Corniche is the favorite, drew the rail and has Mike Smith aboard. Smith has two riding styles – go to the lead or linger at the back. It is safe to assume that Corniche will be in the thick of things when the gate opens. It is anyone's guess who might go with Corniche. It would be surprising if one of his stablemates pressed Corniche into a speed duel, but it has happened in other races with unfortunate results.
While the public might be all over Corniche, I'm not convinced that he is Baffert's best bet here. Rockefeller easily outworked the heavier Corniche in their breeze.
I am going against the grain and giving Pappacap another shot. He has tactical speed, and he is happier on the outside. Oviatt Class will be running late, and it wouldn't be a shock to see him win it.
7 Pappacap (8-1)
4 Oviatt Class (3-1)
1 Corniche (6-5)
3 Finneus (12-1)