Will Mor Spirit Rebound in the Santa Anita Derby?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

Get ready, everyone! This coming Saturday promises to the best day of racing in the U.S. so far this year, with seven grade I races and numerous grade II and grade III events on the schedule. Leading the way are three major Kentucky Derby prep races, including the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park. Ten talented horses have been entered-let's take a look at the entries!

#HorseJockeyTrainerLast race
1Denman’s CallRafael BejaranoDoug O’Neill2nd San Pedro Stakes (VIDEO)
2ExaggeratorKent DesormeauxKeith Desormeaux3rd San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
3Danzing CandyMike SmithClifford Sise, Jr.1st San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
4Mor SpiritGary StevensBob Baffert2nd San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
5Smokey ImageVictor EspinozaCarla Gaines5th San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)
6Iron RobStewart ElliotGeorge Papaprodromou1st San Pedro Stakes (VIDEO)
7Dressed in HermesFlavien PratJanet Armstrong1st Pasadena Stakes (VIDEO)
8Rare CandyJoe TalamoDavid Hofmans2nd Allowance Optional Claiming (VIDEO)
9DiplodocusTyler BazeRichard Baltas5th El Camino Real Derby (gr. III) (VIDEO)
10Uncle LinoF. PerezGary Sherlock4th San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) (VIDEO)

Any analysis of the Santa Anita Derby must begin with Danzing Candy, a very promising colt that has won his last three starts in impressive fashion. After easy wins in a maiden special weight and an allowance race, the son of Twirling Candy made his stakes debut against a fantastic field in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), winning by two lengths in gate-to-wire fashion while earning a 100 Beyer speed figure. He's given the impression that he could be a star in the making, and if he runs his rivals off their feet again in the Santa Anita Derby, we might be looking at our Kentucky Derby winner.

On the other hand, Danzing Candy does have a few questions to answer. He'll be facing some talented front-runners on Saturday, including the speedy San Pedro Stakes winner Iron Rob, and since all of Danzing Candy's victories have come in gate-to-wire fashion, he may have to change his running style if Iron Rob bids for the lead. He could also face pace pressure from Smokey Image, who finished fifth in the San Felipe Stakes after going unbeaten in the first six starts of his career. Smokey Image has a lot of speed, but didn't get a chance to show it in the San Felipe when a slow start and a wide trip left him several lengths off the pace. Don't be surprised if he is much more forwardly placed on Saturday.

Another question mark for Danzing Candy is the fact that he has a history of breaking slowly from the starting gate. It cost him any chance at victory in his debut, when he broke last and got bottled up behind horses, and while he broke better in the San Felipe, he was also a bit fidgety in the starting gate that day. After drawing post three for the Santa Anita Derby, a good start could be crucial for Danzing Candy.

Lastly, there's a strong chance that the track could be sloppy for the Santa Anita Derby, a condition that Danzing Candy has yet to encounter. With this in mind, my choice to win is Mor Spirit. Trained by Bob Baffert, Mor Spirit had no trouble handling a sloppy, sealed track in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes (gr. II) last year-he ran second after pressing the pace and finished ahead of future graded stakes winners Mo Tom and Gun Runner. Since that race, Mor Spirit has done little wrong, showing new dimensions to win the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) and Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) while closing from behind and tracking the pace, respectively. In the San Felipe Stakes, he was beaten two lengths by Danzing Candy, but he was facing a tough task trying to reel in the lonely leader and had to briefly wait for racing room while rallying up the rail. When it became clear that Danzing Candy was too far ahead to catch, it seemed as though jockey Gary Stevens didn't ask Mor Spirit for his best run, likely to leave something in the tank for the future. Even still, Mor Spirit finished strongly when guided to the outside in the final furlong, and since that race, Mor Spirit has trained extraordinarily well. Two of his last three workouts-half-miles in :47 4/5 and :47 flat-have received the label "breezing," a rare designation in California that indicates Mor Spirit was never urged, and reading comments from Bob Baffert and Gary Stevens, they seem very confident that Mor Spirit is improving and ready to run a huge race. My feeling is that Bob Baffert is only now "tightening the screws" on Mor Spirit, and I believe Mor Spirit is ready for a performance that will stamp him as one of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby.

For the exotics, I think Exaggerator and Iron Rob have a strong chance to round out the trifecta and superfecta. In the San Felipe, Exaggerator was far behind early on before unleashing a huge run down the back stretch and around the far turn to gain second place. He seemed to be moving like a winner, but understandably tired in the homestretch to finish third, beaten 2 ¾ lengths. It's possible that he's better at shorter distances and won't relish the nine furlongs of the Santa Anita Derby, but even if that's the case, a better trip on Saturday could see him finish in the exotics on talent alone.

As for Iron Rob, he's run 6 ½ furlongs or shorter in nine of his ten starts, but has shown a lot of improvement this year and looked good winning the six-furlong San Pedro Stakes by 1 ½ lengths after carving out fractions of :21.91 and :44.55. While it's true that his lone start around two turns yielded a seventh-place finish, that effort came in a turf race against some nice horses, and he didn't run badly at all, battling for the lead past the eighth pole before tiring in the final furlong. Furthermore, his pedigree suggests that longer distances could be within reach, as his sire-Twirling Candy-placed in a couple of grade Is at ten furlongs, and Iron Rob's broodmare sire, Tiger Ridge, ran his best races going two turns. Speed can never be underestimated, and if Iron Rob shakes clear of Danzing Candy early on or even settles nicely into second with dueling for the lead, he might outrun expectations and hang on well in the homestretch.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Santa Anita Derby?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website http://www.theturfboard.com/.

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