By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
Although there are three Grade 1 races scheduled to be
run this Saturday at Santa Anita, the best race on the card might actually be
the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II). The 8.5-furlong race is shaping up to
be a battle between McKinzie and Bolt d'Oro, two of the early favorites
for the Kentucky Derby.
Regular readers of this blog know that I'm a big fan of McKinzie,
going so far as to declare on the day of his maiden victory that he would win
the Derby. Only time will tell if McKinzie can prevail on the first Saturday in
May, but I definitely like his chances of winning the San Felipe.
Trained by Bob Baffert, McKinzie is technically unbeaten
in three starts, though one of those wins was actually a runner-up effort in
the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (gr. I), a race in which he was placed
first via the disqualification of stablemate Solomini. In any case, McKinzie
has shown flashes of significant talent during his brief career, breaking his
maiden sprinting seven furlongs at Santa Anita with a 99 Beyer speed figure and
most recently winning the January 6th Sham Stakes (gr. III) by 3 ½ lengths
with a 98 Beyer.
But McKinzie is much more than a simple "speed machine."
Though he's recorded fast final times, he seems to be at his best coming from
off the pace and appeared to get leg-weary in the Los Alamitos Futurity, in
which he made an early bid for the lead in what was his two-turn debut. He
produced a much stronger finish in the Sham Stakes, rating in fourth behind a
modest pace before accelerating the final quarter-mile in :24.41 to win going
McKinzie main competition will almost certainly come from
Bolt d'Oro, who stunned the racing
world with his remarkable 7 ¾-length triumph in the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I)
over this track and distance last September, earning a 103 Beyer. A repeat of
that effort would make Bolt d'Oro difficult to beat, but it's worth noting Bolt
d'Oro has a history of breaking slowly from the starting gate. After overcoming
slow starts to win his first two races, including the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I),
he got off to a better start in the FrontRunner but returned to his
slow-starting ways in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), which led to a very
wide trip and a third-place finish as the heavy favorite.
Bolt d'Oro hasn't run since then, and while he's turned
in some sharp workouts in preparation for his return, he once again broke
slowly from the starting gate in a six-furlong workout on February 26th.
A slow start while breaking from the rail in the San Felipe could lead to a
tough trip racing inside of horses and compromise his chances. Even still, he
must be respected off his tremendous juvenile form, but I think McKinzie is
poised to work out the better trip on Saturday and gain a small but meaningful
another logical contender, having produced an explosive rally to win the
seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (gr. II) by 3 ¼ lengths last time out, earning
an eye-catching 99 Beyer speed figure. But while Kanthaka clearly has talent, his
pedigree suggests that he could wind up best as a sprinter, and it's worth
noting that he got a very favorable pace setup in the San Vicente. According to
data from RacingFlow.com, the San Vicente received a Closer Favorability Ratio
(CFR) of 95, ranking it in the top 6% of closer-favoring races. Unless Kanthaka
receives a similar setup in the San Felipe, which doesn't appear probable, he
could have trouble reproducing his San Vicente performance.
One longer shot to consider is Ayacara, who recently parlayed a ground-saving trip into a
late-running second-place finish in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. III) at
Santa Anita. The race didn't come back all that fast in terms of speed figures,
but Ayacara also ran reasonably well when fourth in the FrontRunner Stakes and could
be a contender if the track comes up sloppy, a distinct possibility given that weather
forecasts call for rain at Santa Anita on Saturday. According to data from
Brisnet, the progeny of Ayacara's sire--the young stallion Violence--win at a 25%
rate on off tracks, and jockey Kent Desormeaux performs well when riding deep
closers on muddy tracks, frequently finding the best footing and guiding them
to victory with bold rides.
15-1 on the morning line and might be in a bit deep considering that he
finished a distant fifth in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, but jockey Mike Smith
told Santa Anita Publicity after the race that Peace didn't react well to the
addition of blinkers, so trainer Richard Mandella will remove them for the San
Felipe. Peace had previously beaten some quality horses in maiden races,
including future Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) winner Instilled Regard and recent
maiden winner Restoring Hope, so if Peace rebounds with the removal of blinkers
he could find himself in the mix on Saturday.
his excellent early speed to win the Robert B. Lewis by two lengths in
gate-to-wire fashion, but he benefited from securing a clear lead that day and
could face more pace pressure in the San Felipe from Aquila, who enters off a front-running maiden win at Santa
Anita for trainer Simon Callaghan. I don't think they'll necessarily burn each
other out on the front end, but with McKinzie and Bolt d'Oro likely to be
breathing down their necks from the start, hanging on to finish in the trifecta
could be a tough task for Lombo and Aquila.
So to recap, in this showdown of top Derby contenders I'm
picking McKinzie to win over Bolt d'Oro, with Ayacara and Peace being
longshots that could boost the payoffs by finishing in the trifecta or
Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the San Felipe?
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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.