Will American Freedom Upset the Gold Cup?

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

This Saturday, Santa Anita will host a fantastic nine-race card that includes four graded stakes races and a couple of very competitive maiden special weights. The day's feature is the $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I), a ten-furlong race that has drawn a strong field of nine evenly-matched horses.

The morning line favorite at 5-2 is Midnight Storm, a Grade 1-winning turf miler that has proven to be just as effective racing on dirt this winter. The son of Pioneerof the Nile won the Native Diver Stakes (gr. III) and San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) in gate-to-wire fashion over wet tracks, then stretched out to ten furlongs and was beaten just three-quarters of a length by the talented Shaman Ghost in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I).

Midnight Storm figures to be dangerous on the lead, though his most recent run in the nine-furlong Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) yielded a more disappointing result as he tired to finish third, beaten 2 ¼ lengths. Now he stretches back out in distance to ten furlongs and faces a few other horses with early speed; considering that ten furlongs is probably a bit beyond Midnight Storm's best distance, I'll lean against him here and try to beat him with a horse offering better odds.

In my opinion, the horse to beat might be American Freedom. Trained by Bob Baffert, American Freedom won the Iowa Derby (gr. III) last year during a campaign that also saw him finish second in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I) and Travers Stakes (gr. I). The latter race was held at ten furlongs, and while American Freedom's 13 ½-length margin of defeat might suggest that the distance is a little far for him, it's important to remember that the winner was Arrogate, who shattered a 37-year-old track record while earning a 122 Beyer speed figure. American Freedom-even in defeat-earned a 104 Beyer while finishing ahead of future Grade 1 winners Gun Runner and Connect.

American Freedom went to the sidelines after the Travers, but trained impressively for his return in the May 5th Alysheba Stakes (gr. II) at Churchill Downs, where he was sent off as the favorite at 3-2. At first glance, his fourth-place finish looks disappointing, but American Freedom raced wide on a day when the track was clearly favoring horses that raced on the rail, including the three horses that beat him in the Alysheba. According to data from Trakus, the ground loss alone was enough to account for American Freedom's defeat, even if you overlook how the track was playing.

The fact that Baffert is running American Freedom back in a Grade 1 race just three weeks after the Alysheba is a sign of confidence, as is the fact that American Freedom was supplemented to the race at a cost of $10,000. He'll also be adding blinkers, which he wore for the first five starts of his career (including the Iowa Derby and Haskell); according to statistics from DRF Formulator, Baffert is 7-for-17 when adding blinkers in graded stakes races over the last five years, a 41% win rate with a $5.00 ROI.

The only concern is that drawing the rail doesn't offer American Freedom many options for working out an ideal trip, but he's got a couple of closers drawn to his outside, which will hopefully allow jockey Martin Garcia to guide American Freedom to the outside if Midnight Storm is intent on getting the early lead. In any case, I believe American Freedom is poised to show significant improvement in his second start off the layoff, and I'll be surprised if he doesn't give a good account of himself. At 4-1 on the morning line, I think he's the best play.

I also respect the chances of Follow Me Crev, who could be a major threat from behind if the pace gets hot. The son of Quality Road won an allowance race in February (his first start in six months), then ran third in the Santa Anita Handicap and second in the Californian Stakes (gr. II) while attempting to rally into modest early fractions each time; in addition, he suffered a wide trip in the Californian and reportedly missed some training time after the Santa Anita Handicap, so there are reasons to think he can step up with a bigger effort in the Gold Cup.

Hard Aces won this race in 2015 and is another that could challenge from off the pace, but at this stage in his career, he seems to be at his best going twelve furlongs and longer-in fact, his two wins since the 2015 Gold Cup were at twelve furlongs. The same goes for Big John B, whose form on dirt is excellent, albeit at twelve furlongs. Accelerate would be a major player off his recent efforts, including a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I) and a second in the San Pasqual (beaten just 1 ¼ lengths by Midnight Storm), but he may scratch from the Gold Cup to await a different race. Cupid showed flashes of talent last year while winning three graded stakes races against three-year-olds, but he hasn't run since September and missed the Californian Stakes after suffering a slight injury before the race. Rounding out the field are Texas Ryano and Prime Attraction, and while each has their merits, their biggest wins have come on turf and the Gold Cup will likely prove a big challenge.

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


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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