2019 Sham Stakes Preview

Arlington Park has a Grade 1 turf race named after the hero of the 1973 Triple Crown series.  Santa Anita, on the other hand, has a Grade 3 dirt race — an early-stage Derby prep — named after that year’s perpetual bridesmaid.  Perhaps if Sham were born in any other year, his name would be nestled somewhere in that list that begins with Sir Barton and ends with Justify.  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).  Even though the 2018 Sham Stakes winner, McKinzie, missed the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby, his dominant score in the Grade 1 Malibu Stakes on December 26 suggests he could be a force in the handicap division very soon.

McKinzie wins the 2018 Sham Stakes easily.

Of local interest, 2014 winner Midnight Hawk — a horse co-owned by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and trained by five-time Sham Stakes winning trainer Bob Baffert — finished second in the Illinois Derby (G3) that spring.

Saturday, January 5 – Santa Anita Park

Race 9: Sham Stakes (G3), three-year-olds, one mile on the dirt, post time 4:00pm PST

This year’s edition of the Sham Stakes offers a purse of $100,000, plus Road to the Kentucky Derby points apportioned 10-4-2-1 to the top four finishers.  The race drew a field of seven, including three uncoupled same-trainer entries.  Trainer Bob Baffert sends out maiden winner Coliseum as well as Much Better, who broke his maiden on the dirt at Del Mar but is since stakes-placed on grass.  Keith Desormeaux has both Sueno, last-out winner of the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate, and Easy Shot, who got his diploma about a month ago in a high-priced maiden claiming dirt sprint.  Peter Miller sends out both last-out maiden special weight winner Gray Magician as well as Savagery, the saltiest horse in the field with six starts behind him.  Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer sends out the only singleton: Gunmetal Gray, who finally gets out from behind Game Winner’s shadow after chasing him around in Grade 1s in his last two starts.

The two major contenders in the Sham are GUNMETAL GRAY and COLISEUM.  COLISEUM comes in as the buzz horse.  His trainer, Bob Baffert, has shined on the California three-year-old circuit, and has won five editions of the Sham already.  COLISEUM heralds the beginning of his relationship with Godolphin, a redoubling of Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum’s efforts to win a Kentucky Derby.  The grey son of Tapit debuted at Del Mar on November 17, winning a maiden special weight easily, wire to wire.  Everything suggests he has the form and the talent.

But?  COLISEUM has only one race under him.  The race was a seven-furlong race, making this his first two-turn try.  He is by Tapit, suggesting he will stretch out — but dam Game Face (despite being by Menifee) was a sprinter.  And, COLISEUM led at every call in his debut.  He hasn’t been tested up front, and SAVAGERY will likely give him that test should COLISEUM send again.

So, this space would rather lean more heavily on GUNMETAL GRAY.  GUNMETAL GRAY has more seasoning: four starts underneath him, including a pair of Grade 1 races.  The son of Exchange Rate also has two-turn experience: he broke his maiden at a mile at Del Mar, and his last two starts have come at a mile and a sixteenth.  GUNMETAL GRAY has tactical speed: he doesn’t have to drop far back, a positive given that this is just a field of seven, but he has proven he can pass horses.  And, though he gets a rider change for this outing — his new jockey is Mike Smith, who shines in stakes races and who is starting the Santa Anita meet well.  All in all, GUNMETAL GRAY appeals strongly for the (admittedly minor) upset.

Let’s close out the Sham Stakes greyfecta with GRAY MAGICIAN.  Flavien Prat did ride GUNMETAL GRAY in his last two starts, but instead shows up on this son of Graydar, who he piloted to a nine-and-a-half-length maiden score on November 24 at Del Mar.  That was GRAY MAGICIAN’s fourth career start — but his first since Wachtel Stable and Gary Barber joined Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners in ownership, and his first since moving to Peter Miller’s shedrow.  Most pertinent for this outing, it was GRAY MAGICIAN’s first start at two turns.  He had hit the board all three times in sprint races through the summer and early fall, but bloomed when stretched to a mile.  Now, he returns to that two-turn mile trip.  It’s also a positive that he keeps Flavien Prat in the irons, not to mention interesting since Prat rode GUNMETAL GRAY in his last two.


#5 COLISEUM (1/1)

Longshot:  Rail-drawn #1 SUENO (20/1) from the Keith Desormeaux barn intrigues.  He does have to take a step up to beat these, but there are reasons he can.  The victory in the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate last time out was his first try at two turns, a test he passed.  Though that effort came over a synthetic surface, SUENO’s maiden victory came over the dirt at Del Mar suggesting the footing will be no problem.  He also has a positive running style for this; though he may need to be a bit closer early than he was in his victory at Golden Gate, the fact that he was as close to the pace as he was in his maiden victory at five and a half furlongs suggests he can be tactical.  And, jockey Kent Desormeaux steps off stablemate EASY SHOT to take the call on SUENO instead.


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