Looking for a Longshot in the Santa Anita Derby

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

Get ready, everyone! A tremendous day of racing awaits on April 8th, with fourteen graded stakes races scheduled to be run at Aqueduct, Keeneland, and Santa Anita. The lineup includes three major Kentucky Derby prep races, with the $1,000,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) appearing to offer the greatest opportunity for a significant wagering score. Let's start handicapping!

Santa Anita Derby (gr. I)

A field of thirteen will contest Santa Anita's final Kentucky Derby prep race, and with a wet track a possibility for Saturday, the task of finding the winner might be comparable to finding a needle in a haystack. After all, few of these horses have experience on wet tracks, and only three have ever won a graded stakes race.

The favorite on the morning line is Iliad, who won the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) before finishing second in the 8.5-furlong San Felipe Stakes (gr. II), which marked his two-turn debut. That was a solid effort, though Iliad was no match for runaway winner Mastery (who came out of the race with an injury) and was tiring in the homestretch after tracking a pace that wasn't all that fast. He'll be stretching out another half-furlong on Saturday while facing several other speed horses that could ensure a fast pace--under the circumstances, I think Iliad is vulnerable to an upset.

Gormley finished fourth in the San Felipe after pressing the pace in between horses for six furlongs, but was only beaten three lengths by Iliad in a performance that was stronger than it appears at first glance. The John Shirreffs-trained colt had previously won the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) and Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, with the latter being conducted over a sloppy, sealed track. Thus far, Gormley has been a bit unpredictable--he either wins or finishes off the board--but he has trained well since the San Felipe and is expected to rate further off the lead on Saturday. If he's able to relax and adapt to a change in running style, Gormley could be perfectly positioned to rally into a fast pace and rebound in a big way.

Term of Art, who split Iliad and Gormley when third in the San Felipe, has steadily improved throughout his career and should appreciate the extra distance and possible fast pace of the Santa Anita Derby. He doesn't have much early speed at all, but figures to make one run from the back of the pack and see how many horses he can catch. While he might not be a horse to play on top, he's definitely one to consider for the exotics.

Battle of Midway and Reach the World ran 1-2 in an 8.5-furlong allowance race on March 9th at Santa Anita, and the fact that they were separated by a neck makes it difficult to choose one over the other. Battle of Midway had a significantly wider trip than Reach the World (running nearly five lengths farther per Trakus), but the latter raced in tight quarters throughout and wasn't able to get a clear run until the homestretch, when he gained 1 ¼ lengths on Battle of Midway in the final furlong. Of the pair, I might narrowly prefer Battle of Midway, who broke his maiden over a wet-fast/sealed track and is bred to relish mud, but it's a close call.

Actually, the most intriguing horse to come out of that allowance race might be Irish Freedom, who finished fifth. Trained by Bob Baffert, the son of Pioneerof the Nile won a high-profile maiden race at Del Mar last summer (defeating Royal Mo and Sonneteer among others) and was billed as a potential star, but went to the sidelines and did not run again until the March 9th allowance race, which marked his first start in more than six months and his debut around two turns. As if this wasn't enough of a challenge, Irish Freedom broke slowly and wound up racing last early on (a far cry from his pace-tracking maiden win) while going very wide on both turns. Despite these obstacles, Irish Freedom made an eye-catching mid-race move to rally within a length of the leaders on the far turn, but this effort cost him in the homestretch and he faded in the final furlongs to finish 9 ½ lengths behind Battle of Midway.

But considering his dreadful trip, Irish Freedom's effort was much better than it appears at first glance. According to Trakus, he actually ran 8 ¼ lengths farther than Reach the World (and 3 ¼ lengths farther than Battle of Midway), so he might have finished significantly closer with a ground-saving trip. The fact that he has been entered in the Santa Anita Derby is a sign of confidence from Bob Baffert, and may be partly the result of Irish Freedom's excellent workout on April 2nd, in which he went six furlongs in a bullet 1:12 1/5 while out-working stablemate West Coast, who had been considered a probable starter for the Santa Anita Derby up until then.

To seal the deal, Irish Freedom is bred top and bottom to relish a wet track. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, finished second in the Kentucky Derby over a sloppy track and sired the mud-loving American Pharoah, while Irish Freedom's dam sire--Smart Strike--is best known as the sire of Curlin, who romped to victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic over a sloppy track. If you're looking for a longshot with a chance to take a huge step forward, I think Irish Freedom is the most likely candidate.

American Anthem started his career with a solid maiden win and a runner-up effort in the Sham Stakes, beaten just a head by Gormley. But when he shipped to Oaklawn Park to contest the Rebel Stakes, American Anthem received a wide trip and faltered to finish tenth, though he did lose a shoe during the race and is surely better than his performance suggests. Still, jockey Mike Smith has jumped ship to ride American Anthem's stablemate Reach the World, and it's hard to take a short price on a horse that was never seriously involved last time out and is now carrying seven pounds more weight.

Also coming off a disappointing run in the Rebel is Royal Mo, who finished ninth after previously winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita by 3 ½ lengths. Trained by John Shirreffs, the son of Uncle Mo likes to race on or near the lead, which could be tricky since he has drawn the far outside post position. From there, his only options are to gun for the lead (likely getting involved in a fast pace) or try to settle off the lead and risk a very wide trip, with neither option being very appealing.

So to condense this rather lengthy analysis into something shorter, I view Gormley and Battle of Midway as the main win contenders, although in this deep field, I'm not sure either will offer very appealing odds--I would want at least 5-1. So why consider Irish Freedom at 20-1? Obviously he needs to take a huge step forward, but there are plenty of reasons to think he's better than his last run implies. Assuming the track is at least somewhat wet, let's box all three in the exacta and consider Reach the World and Term of Art as others to include in various exotics plays, emphasizing the latter for third and fourth place only.

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

Quick Picks

In addition to three Kentucky Derby prep races, there are also three Kentucky Oaks prep races scheduled for this weekend, including the $500,000 Central Bank Ashland Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland. Daddys Lil Darling is the morning line favorite off a solid two-year-old campaign that saw her win the Pocahontas Stakes (gr. II) and finish second in the Alcibiades Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland, but I'm focusing my attention on Elate.

Trained by Bill Mott, the daughter of Medaglia d'Oro broke his maiden by 12 ½ lengths last November, earning an impressive 88 Beyer speed figure, and while she's been beaten in her two starts since then, I think she had legitimate excuses. In the February 11th Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, Elate was short of peak fitness and racing over a track that seemed to favor speed, yet still finished a good second behind Tapa Tapa Tapa after racing wide. A month later, Elate broke slowly in the Honeybee Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Park and found herself eleven lengths off the lead, a complete change in running style for a filly that likes to track the pace. Despite this obstacle, Elate put in a decent rally to finish third, a neck in front of Tapa Tapa Tapa.

In a race that appears lacking in serious early speed, Elate should be poised to work out a perfect trip stalking Someday Soon and Tapped in the early stages of the Ashland Stakes. From there, I think she'll take command and hold off the closers to pull off a mild upset.

One other horse that has jumped out at me in the entries this weekend is Myakka River, who is entered in the first race at Aqueduct on Saturday. Trained by Shug McGaughey, who isn't known for winning with first-time starters, Myakka River showed no speed in his debut sprinting seven furlongs at Gulfstream on March 4th, but did gain an eye-catching seven lengths in the final furlong to be beaten seven lengths in a deep field. The winner, Timeline, came back to win an allowance race at Aqueduct on April 6th by 13 ½ lengths in a fast time (keep an eye out for him!), while the runner-up--Giuseppe the Great--had previously finished a good third at Gulfstream behind two well-regarded runners trained by Todd Pletcher and Chad Brown.

But perhaps the biggest reason to like Myakka River is Shug McGaughey's excellent record with horses making their second start. According to statistics from Brisnet, McGaughey has a positive ROI and a 26% win rate with second-time starters, so I expect Myakka River to take a big step forward on Saturday. Even slight improvement might be enough, as Myakka River earned solid speed figures in his debut and won't be facing the toughest field. Four-time Eclipse Award-winning jockey Javier Castellano picks up the mount, and at anything more than his 5-2 morning line odds, Myakka River could be an appealing win bet.

Good luck this weekend!


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 www.theturfboard.com.

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