McKinzie, Mask Loom Large in Derby Preps

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")

Happy New Year, everyone! Thanks to a pair of early Kentucky Derby prep races at Santa Anita and Gulfstream Park, 2018 will kick off with a bang for racing fans. The highlight of this coming Saturday is the $100,000 Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita, which offers a total of 17 Derby qualification points to the top four finishers, but the $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park is almost as interesting despite the fact that it doesn't offer any points.

Let's take a look at both races....

Sham Stakes (gr. III)

This race was shaping up to be a rather competitive event until trainer Bob Baffert entered McKinzie, a last-minute move that puts the race in an entirely different light. Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of McKinzie, who opened his career with an eye-catching 5 ½-length maiden win at Santa Anita (earning a 99 Beyer) before crossing the wire second in the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity (gr. I) on December 9th, a race in which he was placed first via disqualification.

I felt that McKinzie moved a little too soon in the Los Alamitos Futurity and got a bit leg-weary in the long homestretch, which wasn't surprising since the race marked his two-turn debut. Baffert wasted no time getting him back on the work tab after that race, sending him out twelve days later so that McKinzie could get in three solid workouts before the Sham. I particularly liked McKinzie's December 27th work, in which he went five furlongs in :59 1/5 while holding his own against Ax Man (who came back to break his maiden easily on January 1st) and galloping out impressively.

I'm also excited to see that McKinzie will be racing without blinkers in the Sham Stakes, which should help him settle better and make a run from off the pace like he did in his maiden win. First-time blinkers off in graded stakes races is a very strong angle for Baffert, and taking all of this together, I don't think McKinzie will be beaten in the Sham. He's 3-5 on the morning line, but looks like a solid single for the multi-race wagers and a horse to key on top in the trifecta or superfecta.

For second place, I like Shivermetimbers, a Jerry Hollendorfer-trainee that won a one-mile maiden race on November 23rd at Del Mar by a head over Peace, who came back to win a similar event at Santa Anita against a good field.

Mucho Macho Man Stakes

Most of the attention will be focused on Dak Attack, who went 2-for-2 for trainer Dale Romans during the summer, keeping good company and rallying to score an eye-catching three-length win in the Ellis Park Juvenile Stakes on August 20th.

However, Dak Attack was sidelined by a minor injury following the Ellis Park Juvenile and will be returning from a lengthy layoff in the Mucho Macho Man. Throw in the fact that he got an ideal pace setup in the Ellis Park Juvenile (the early fractions were very fast), and I'm tempted to side against him as he stretches out to a mile for the first time.

Instead, I'll take a shot with Mask. Trained by Chad Brown, the promising young son of Tapit has only run once, but that one run resulted in a big maiden victory at Belmont Park that really caught my eye. Despite breaking slowly at the start of the 6 ½-furlong sprint, Mask gradually worked his way into contention while racing professionally in between horses and boldly split horses turning for home, seizing command and drawing off to win by three lengths while earning sharp speed figures. Considering his pedigree, the one-turn mile of the Mucho Macho Man shouldn't be an issue, and it's not hard to envision Mask taking a step forward while making his second start, particularly if he breaks better from the gate. I'm expecting a big run and believe Mask is the horse to beat.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the weekend Derby preps?



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