Thoroughbred racing has concluded at Hawthorne, not to return until late March. With that, Picks and Ponderings will be casting its eyes afield, focusing most strongly on the three-year-old prep season.
The Jerome, originally scheduled for New Year's Day, was supposed to be the first race on the Derby Trail this year. However, bitter cold and snow have delayed Aqueduct's first points race of 2017; that race will likely be run next weekend. Instead, the first points of the year will be up for grabs this Saturday at Santa Anita, in the Sham Stakes (G3), which we preview in detail right here.
Sunday's racing schedule at the Great Race Place also features an Oaks points race, the Santa Ynez Stakes (G2). Picks and Ponderings also previews the Santa Ynez in a separate piece.
Morning line odds for the Sham Stakes were not available at original publish time. Updated on Thursday, January 4 to add morning lines.
Saturday, January 6 - Santa Anita Park
Race 5: Sham Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one mile on the dirt, post time 2:30pm PST
Arlington Park has a Grade I turf race named after the hero of the 1973 Triple Crown series. Santa Anita, on the other hand, has a Grade III dirt race -- an early-stage Derby prep -- named after that year's perpetual bridesmaid. Perhaps if Sham were born in any other year, we may be saying his name in the same breath as Sir Barton and Assault and American Pharoah. As it stands, he will forever be known as Secretariat's foil. Sham spent a good portion of his Derby prep season out west, winning both the Santa Catalina (now the Robert B. Lewis) as well as the Santa Anita Derby in 1973.
The Sham Stakes has been run since 2001, and has been a Grade 3 since 2006. The race was originally run at a mile and an eighth on dirt, but was contested on the Santa Anita synthetic track from 2008 to 2010. In 2011 it was moved back to dirt and shortened to 1 1/16 miles; since 2012 it has been run at its current distance of a flat mile. So far, three horses have won both the Sham Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby (G3): Colonel John (2005), Goldencents (2013), and Gormley (2017).
The race has produced two eventual Breeders' Cup winners, both in the Dirt Mile: Goldencents won the Dirt Mile in 2013 and 2014, and Tapizar (2011) won the Dirt Mile the following year. Of local interest, 2014 winner Midnight Hawk -- a horse co-owned by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville -- finished second in the Illinois Derby (G3) that spring.
Odds-on Midnight Hawk runs to the money in the 2014 Sham Stakes.
Sometimes the best horse on paper just wins, and it looks like one of those cases where that's likely. With so much early speed in this race (MOURINHO, SHIVER ME TIMBERS, ALL OUT BLITZ), the blinkers-off move makes likely favourite MCKINZIE even tougher to beat -- especially since his maiden win already showed he could sit off the pace and make a move, even with blinkers. The cut back from a mile and a sixteenth to a flat mile should fit MCKINZIE cozily, and since his maiden win came over the Santa Anita dirt, he has proven he can handle the footing. This space sees trying to defeat him as getting cute for cute's sake. Yes, Solomini beat him to the wire last out, but there's no Solomini here. Anyone else would have to take a clear step forward to beat him, and with only two starts underneath him, MCKINZIE could easily improve here, too.
The dark horse with the most going for him is SHIVERMETIMBERS. Yes, he does have some tables to turn on MCKINZIE, as SHIVERMETIMBERS finished six and a quarter lengths adrift in a seven-furlong maiden race at Santa Anita in October. But, the son of Shanghai Bobby put it all together last out, in his first try at a mile. That day, he was right on a contested pace all the way around, and still managed to get his head on the wire in front of solid next-out maiden winner Peace. SHIVERMETIMBERS returns to the flat mile today, with that extra bit of experience since the last time he clashed with MCKINZIE. The loss of rider Mike Smith (who rides the favourite instead) may be a negative, but he gets a strong rider in Flavien Prat. Combine that with the fact that trainer Jerry Hollendorfer has started the Santa Anita meet strong and wins at 17% with last-out maiden winners, and SHIVERMETIMBERS's human connections weigh positively.
MCKINZIE's stablemate MOURINHO also deserves a look. MOURINHO showed sharp early speed in his first two starts; though he sat a bit off last out in the Bob Hope (G3), expect him to be a bit more aggressive up front today, as he adds blinkers for the first time. Though he lost to a longshot as the favourite in the Bob Hope, don't count that too heavily against MOURINHO: the horse who beat him was Greyvitos, who proved in the Remington Springboard Mile that he was the real deal. Finally, the distance should serve MOURINHO well. He stretches out to two turns for the first time, and being by Super Saver half to 2017 Zia Park Oaks winner Sandy's Surprise, the breeding suggests that two turns is where MOURINHO belongs.
#6 MCKINZIE (3/5)
#5 SHIVERMETIMBERS (7/2)
#4 MOURINHO (4/1)
Longshot: Among the real longshots in the field, #7 CITY PLAN (20/1) intrigues to snatch a share. With four races under his girth, he's one of the more experienced horses in the field, but what particularly intrigues about him is the pattern. His two better races have both come at a flat mile, the distance to which he returns today. Yes, CITY PLAN has class to prove; his maiden race at Los Alamitos and his stakes win at Golden Gate both suggest he needs a big step forward to be on MCKINZIE's level. But, this is a more reasonable ask than the FrontRunner (G1) was back in September. And, it is also a positive that he gets rider Tyler Conner back in the irons. Conner took him from off the pace to make a rally in the Gold Rush at Golden Gate, and with as much speed as there is in the Sham? If it falls apart late, CITY PLAN will be rolling at them once again.
You can take "Picks & Ponderings" with you anytime, anywhere. You can get Twitter updates @picksponderings for on-scene reports from Hawthorne Racecourse. And you can get "Picks and Ponderings" in your e-mail by typing your email address in the box and clicking "Create Subscription." It's a FREE service, and you'll never get any unwanted spam.