When one door closes, another opens. Originally billed as a rematch between McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro, McKinzie has bowed out of the Santa Anita Derby — but his stablemate in the Bob Baffert barn, Justify, will be entered instead. So, the race will be a showdown between Bolt d’Oro, so proven at two, and the promising Justify, making his stakes debut.
In addition to this preview, we also discuss the weekend’s other three-year-old points races in separate pieces. Keeneland’s Saturday card features the Blue Grass (G2) and the Ashland (G1). Aqueduct features the Wood Memorial (G2) and the Gazelle (G2) on Saturday. The next day, we return to Keeneland to look at the Beaumont Stakes (G3), a last-minute 10-point prep.
Saturday, April 7 – Santa Anita Park
Race 9: Santa Anita Derby (G1), three-year-olds, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 3:30pm PDT
This year marks the 81st running of the Santa Anita Derby. Inaugurated in 1935 as a 1 1/16 mile race for three-year-olds, the race was stretched to its current nine-furlong distance in 1938 and has stayed there ever since except for 1947. That year, at least apocryphally due to worries about West Coast form sent east, it was run at the Classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. Generally speaking, Santa Anita Derby winners have compared favourably to others running in the Triple Crown, though they have stacked up better in recent years than in the distant past. The race has been a strong prep through its history: 17 winners of the Santa Anita Derby have gone on to annex the Kentucky Derby. 11 of those 17 performed that double in the last forty years. One of these, Affirmed, went on to win the Triple Crown in 1978. Both California-bred winners of the Kentucky Derby won the Santa Anita Derby on their way to the bluegrass: Swaps (1955) and California Chrome (2014). Other prominent winners of the Santa Anita Derby include prominent and prolific sire A. P. Indy (1989), Secretariat’s second fiddle Sham (1973), and that epitome of deep closers, Silky Sullivan (1958).
Silky Sullivan makes his trademark run in the 1958 Santa Anita Derby.
Just as the chatter suggests, two horses loom large atop the field of seven in this year’s Santa Anita Derby: stakes mainstay BOLT D’ORO and the up-and-coming JUSTIFY. It’s hard to discount either, but this space is going to side with experience, particularly in this nine-furlong final-level Derby prep.
Though BOLT D’ORO was only second best in the San Felipe, it was his first outing after the Breeders’ Cup, and off some issues in training. Though he owes the stewards a box of chocolate and some champagne for being put up over McKinzie, it was a solid return for last year’s best two-year-old. BOLT D’ORO keeps rider Javier Castellano from that outing, and though Castellano took him from a bit off the pace last out, he should be smart enough to know from the horse’s past races that he can keep BOLT D’ORO closer if he needs. On pedigree, he fits: the stretch to a mile and an eighth should suit the son of Medaglia d’Oro well, and if wet weather comes, he has solid mud influences on both sides of his breeding. Finally — and this is the bow that ties it all together — BOLT D’ORO has seasoning. He has done well in romps, and he has done well in close finishes. He knows what a challenge is, and he knows how to try.
That matters, because JUSTIFY has shown an abundance of raw talent in the maiden and allowance ranks. But, both of those starts have been romps. JUSTIFY is untested in a close finish, and untested against horses of the quality of BOLT D’ORO. Beyond that, it’s hard to fault JUSTIFY: he has won both his races easily, he has form over both dry and wet dirt at Santa Anita, and connections don’t come classier than trainer Bob Baffert and rider Mike Smith. JUSTIFY should be relatively forward in the short field, and has shown he can either set fractions or come from just off the pace. Would it be a surprise to see JUSTIFY cut it here? No, it wouldn’t. But, in a battle of two short-priced standouts, this space likes to see seasoning, the one thing JUSTIFY doesn’t have yet.
INSTILLED REGARD is the only horse in this field other than BOLT D’ORO who has positive form against some of the better horses in this three-year-old crop. He held his own in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1) last year against McKinzie and Solomini, then carried that class to New Orleans and romped in the Lecomte (G3). The Risen Star (G2) was a bit of a concern; he finished a flat fourth, and aside from Noble Indy, that race hasn’t graded out very well so far. Yet? The Risen Star was a conveyor belt, which did no favours to INSTILLED REGARD’s off-the-pace style. He has gotten a breather since then — and should be ready to roll here. After all, INSTILLED REGARD needs some points here to make it into the field, and rather cautious trainer Jerry Hollendorfer wouldn’t put his horse back on the Derby trail unless he thought his horse was ready to go. INSTILLED REGARD probably isn’t as good as BOLT D’ORO or JUSTIFY, but get those show bets and trifecta keys ready.
#3 BOLT D’ORO (6/5)
#6 JUSTIFY (4/5)
#1 INSTILLED REGARD (5/1)
Longshot: The other four in the field will all be massive longshots. Though speed in a short field often merits a look, which made the longshot writer consider CORE BELIEFS, he doesn’t seem fast enough to get anywhere near the best of this bunch early even if they don’t push things, and isn’t the best runner late. Among the longshots the best runner late looks to be #5 PEPE TONO (20/1), who has a right to run on for a piece. that’s exactly what he did in an allowance last out; while he was no match for winner JUSTIFY, he ran on with enough interest late to get up for third. That came over a muddy track, giving PEPE TONO a chance to run well enough again if rainy weather materialises. PEPE TONO’s breeding — Bodemeister out of an unraced A. P. Indy mare — suggests he won’t mind the stretch from a mile last out to nine furlongs here. And, his trainer Victor Garcia has been doing well with a limited number of starters this meet, seven wins and another seven money finishes in thirty tries. Does any of this suggest PEPE TONO can win? Probably not. But, the goal with a longshot here is to identify who’s going to invade the superfecta, and with his late pace and affinity for the course, PEPE TONO looks best suited to do that.
Race 11: Santa Anita Oaks (G1), three-year-old fillies, one and one sixteenth miles on the dirt, post time 4:30pm PDT
This year marks the 79th running of the Santa Anita Oaks, a race initially dubbed the Santa Susana Stakes. Inaugurated as a two-furlong dash for two-year-old fillies in 1935, it was next run in 1937, and has been restricted to three-year-old fillies from then on. Since being reinvented as a three-year-old race, it has been run at distances as short as six furlongs and as long as its current distance; it has been run at 1 1/16 miles since 1958. Over its history, six Santa Anita Oaks winners have also worn the garland of lilies in Louisville: Blue Norther (1964), Susan’s Girl (1972), Bold ‘n Determined (1980), Fran’s Valentine (1985), Lite Light (1991), and Rags to Riches (2007). In addition to those six Kentucky Oaks winners, the Santa Anita Oaks has also produced one Kentucky Derby winner: Winning Colors (1988). One other winner, Busher (1945), never ran in the Kentucky Oaks (or Derby) but saw success in Chicago later that year. That summer at Washington Park, she beat older males in both the Arlington Handicap and the Washington Park Handicap.
Paradise Woods dazzles in the 2017 Santa Anita Oaks — but second-place Abel Tasman would turn the tables a month later with a win in the Kentucky Oaks.
This field of nine has two major players: SPECTATOR and MIDNIGHT BISOU. SPECTATOR won the Sorrento (G2) last year before finishing a fairly disappointing third in the Del Mar Debutante (G1), got a long winter off, then came back to finish first by a hard-fought neck against older two-other-than foes last out. Now, she drops back down to three-year-olds. But, several things weigh against her here. First of all, she does her best on or very close to the front, yet the presence of FIRST DUDETTE, SPRING LILY, WE ALL HAVE DREAMS, and THIRTEEN SQUARED will ensure that the pace is hot. Secondly, SPECTATOR is bred top and bottom for one turn. In this mile and a sixteenth race, this space will stand firm against SPECTATOR.
On the other hand, MIDNIGHT BISOU has dominated the west coast Oaks Trail in the absence of Dream Tree, and we expect that to continue here. MIDNIGHT BISOU left no doubt she was best in the seven-furlong Santa Ynez (G2), then when stretching out to a route for the first time in the Santa Ysabel (G3), she won comfortably once more. MIDNIGHT BISOU has run well from either close to the pace or a good bit off of it — not only giving rider Mike Smith some options on where to place her, but also making her trustworthy to stay out of the fight for the front. It’s good to be the class of the field, and it’s even better to be the class of the field when you have a pace advantage. MIDNIGHT BISOU looks like a single.
FINESS BERE, one of a pair for Bob Baffert, is the wild card here. She tries dirt for the first time after four starts on grass. She hasn’t exactly proven her class: she won a maiden at Vichy last year, then has struggled in three listed turf stakes stateside. But? Baffert is an excellent 20% with the turf to dirt move, and FINESS BERE has posted solid enough dirt drills in the morning to make the move worth a try. Furthermore? FINESS BERE has not shown much in the way of early speed, giving her a far better chance than stablemate THIRTEEN SQUARED to stay off a hotly contested front end and have something late.
Even so? If speed is holding particularly well, THIRTEEN SQUARED appeals most of the front-end contingent. She was no match for MIDNIGHT BISOU in the Santa Ysabel, but she continued on well enough off a contested pace in that race to suggest she’ll still have some fight in her down the lane. That clear second in the Santa Ysabel also came over a wet-fast track, suggesting that even though her mud pedigree is a bit shaky on paper, THIRTEEN SQUARED can handle some moisture on the racetrack.
#3 MIDNIGHT BISOU (6/5)
#5 FINESS BERE (15/1)
#9 THIRTEEN SQUARED (9/2)
Longshots: #4 FOOL’S PARADISE (30/1) needs to take a big step up to be a force here, but there are reasons she can improve. Lackluster in a pair of sprint tries back in January, the daughter of Pioneerof the Nile woke up after a freshening and a stretch out to a route, winning by daylight at 20/1. FOOL’S PARADISE is bred top and bottom for distance, so it’s safe to say she found her niche. That victory also came over a track rated good; with rain possible, she has shown she can handle some moisture. On pace, FOOL’S PARADISE’s maiden win also bodes well. That day, she tracked the pace, rallied, and left the field behind; in a race with as much early speed as this one, that kind of a shape should suit FOOL’S PARADISE again. Class is, of course, the question; she faces winners for the first time in a Grade 1. But, FOOL’S PARADISE is going the right way, and she can be trusted to stay off a hot pace. At boxcar odds, you could do far worse.
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.