American Anthem Steps Up in Sham Stakes

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

Happy New Year, everyone! 2016 was a great year for horse racing, with California Chrome, Arrogate, Beholder, Songbird, and Tepin among the many star horses that graced our sport and entertained us with their thrilling performances. 2016 was also a successful year for my selections here on Unlocking Winners; I'm proud to say that I picked 35 winners from 81 races, with a ROI of $3.13 for every $2 win bet. Here's hoping that 2017 is just as good or better!

As usual, we'll kick off the new year by handicapping a Kentucky Derby prep race, in this case the $100,000 Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita. The one-mile race has drawn a field of seven-let's take a look at the entries!

Sham Stakes (gr. III)

#HorseJockeyTrainerLast race
1American AnthemMike SmithBob Baffert1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
2Term of ArtJoe TalamoDoug O’Neill1st Cecil B. DeMille Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO)
3Bird Is the WordGonzalo Gabriel Ulloa PerezG. F. Almeida2nd Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
4Colonel SamsenFlavien PratEoin Harty1st Gold Rush Stakes (VIDEO)
5GormleyVictor EspinozaJohn Shirreffs7th Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) (VIDEO)
6Big HitSantiago GonzalezPhilip D’Amato1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)
7BlabimirMario GutierrezDoug O’Neill1st Maiden Special Weight (VIDEO)

It's not a very creative opinion, but I view the Sham Stakes as a two-horse race between Gormley and American Anthem, with both colts having a legitimate claim to being the best in the race.

Gormley is by far the most accomplished horse in the field, having started his career with two straight wins, including a three-length victory in the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) after securing an uncontested lead. He was among the favorites in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) but received a very poor trip, breaking slowly and getting caught wide before retreating to finish seventh. Under the circumstances, I'll forgive his poor showing and expect a rebound this Saturday. His recent workouts have been significantly better than his pre-Breeders' Cup workouts, as he's been posting faster times (including five furlongs in :59.80 on December 18th) while looking a bit more focused.

The main concern is that Gormley could face some pace pressure from Big Hit and Blabimir, two speedy colts that have drawn outside of Gormley in posts six and seven. If a fast pace does unfold, then American Anthem should be the one to capitalize. Trained by Bob Baffert, the son of Bodemeister has only run once, winning a six-furlong maiden special weight on December 3rd at Del Mar. His margin of victory wasn't eye-catching-just a neck-and he got an excellent setup when front-running Little Juanito tired in the homestretch after setting a fast pace, but American Anthem's relentless late rally was visually impressive. Furthermore, a few of the also-rans have come back to run very well-third-place finisher So Conflated won a maiden special weight at Santa Anita via disqualification, fifth-place finisher Sheer Flattery came back with a win going two turns at Santa Anita, and ninth-place finisher Iliad returned to score an impressive victory at Los Alamitos.

It's a tough choice, but if I have to pick one over the other, I will side with American Anthem, who will carry five pounds less than Gormley while picking up the services of top jockey Mike Smith. If a rapid pace unfolds, American Anthem should be able to work out a good trip from just off the pace and come running to reel in Gormley and prevail.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Sham Stakes?

Another Win for Irish War Cry

Readers of this blog know that I'm very excited about the potential of a three-year-old colt named Irish War Cry, who looks bound for a Kentucky Derby prep race after ending 2016 with a gritty win in the seven-furlong Marylander Stakes at Laurel Park.

Somewhat to my surprise, Irish War Cry showcased a complete change of running style in the Marylander. After breaking his maiden with a powerful off-the-pace rally, Irish War Cry found himself on the lead in the Marylander, setting modest fractions of :23.90 and :47.26 before being challenged by O Dionysus. The two colts hooked up at the top of the stretch and were just a head apart following six furlongs in 1:10.72, a margin which shrank to a nose as they flew through the final furlong in a rapid :11.99 seconds, leaving the remainder of the field ten lengths behind. The photo finish could have gone either way, but Irish War Cry got his head down at the right time and prevailed by a nose (VIDEO). Jockey Feargal Lynch, wrapping up a career-best year in terms of earnings, was the winning rider.

In a news release on the Laurel Park website, Adrian Rolls-assistant to trainer Graham Motion-shared some thoughts on Irish War Cry's performance: "[Irish War Cry's] first out was very good and we were very impressed with him. He's trained on and improved. He's a pretty easy horse to train; he's very relaxed," said Rolls. "Today he kind of jumped out of the gate and was on the bridle very early and I think it surprised Feargal a little bit. He had plenty of horse and gave him a good ride. He just kept him where he was comfortable. He got to idling a little bit in front but when the other horse came to him he kicked in again. It was very close again at the end but Feargal was confident he had enough horse."

What impressed me the most about Irish War Cry was the remarkably even fractions that he ran. His quarter-mile fractions were timed in :23.90, :23.36, and :23.46, plus the final furlong in :11.99; divide the quarter-mile fractions in half to get approximate times for each furlong, and his fractions were :11.95, :11.95, :11.68, :11.68, :11.73, :11.73, and :11.99. To me, this suggests that Irish War Cry is a very talented horse with a lot of potential for stretching out in distance, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he runs next!

Le Bernardin Keeps On Running

You have to admire a horse like Le Bernardin. Five years ago, he won the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth Park and competed in two other graded stakes, including the West Virginia Derby (gr. II). In the years since then, he's become a force to reckon with at Meydan racetrack in Dubai, and on January 5th, he made history by winning a second straight renewal of the Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (UAE-II).

The eight-year-old son of Bernardini was beaten to the early lead and found himself racing behind a wall of horses as the field entered the far turn. After looking for a way to split horses at the top of the stretch, jockey Tadhg O'Shea had to check Le Bernardin's momentum and guide him to the far outside, but Le Bernardin shrugged off the traffic trouble and effortlessly blew past the leaders in the final 300 meters, winning decisively by two lengths.

With this impressive victory under his belt, Le Bernardin could be poised to make his first appearance on Dubai World Cup night, with the Godolphin Mile (UAE-II) over the same distance as the Al Maktoum Challenge being a possible goal.


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Kentucky Derby Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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

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