Handicapping the Santa Anita Derby Showdown

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

Bolt d'Oro or Justify?

While it's rare to see two of the favorites for the Kentucky Derby square off four weeks out from the big race, racing fans will be treated to a special exception in Saturday's $1 million Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park.

The unbeaten, untested Justify and the multiple Grade 1 winner Bolt d'Oro are set for a showdown of epic proportions in the nine-furlong race, which has been won in recent years by future Kentucky Derby winners I'll Have Another and California Chrome, as well as the Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Exaggerator.

Although five other horses have been entered, on paper the Santa Anita Derby looks like a match race between the two heralded Derby favorites. In terms of experience, an edge can definitely be given to Bolt d'Oro, who has done little wrong during a five-race career that has featured flashes of pure brilliance. It takes a special horse to win Grade 1 races at both sprint and route distances, which is exactly what Bolt d'Oro achieved last fall when he won the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) with a late rally and the 8.5-furlong FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I) by a spectacular 7 ¾ lengths, earning a 103 Beyer speed figure.

Bolt d'Oro could have clinched the division championship had he prevailed in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), but a severely wide trip against a talented field compromised his chances and he wound up finishing third behind Good Magic and Solomini, with the latter being a colt Bolt d'Oro had trounced in the FrontRunner.

Following a winter break, Bolt d'Oro returned to action in the March 3rd San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita and looked as good as ever. Facing a top-class rival in McKinzie, Bolt d'Oro settled behind the leaders early on, pounced into contention around the far turn, and then finished just a head behind McKinzie after a prolonged stretch battle. However, following an inquiry, McKinzie was disqualified for drifting out in the homestretch, giving Bolt d'Oro the official victory.

In any case, whether Bolt d'Oro prevailed officially or unofficially doesn't really matter since he received a 101 Beyer speed figure and has clearly come back strong. It's fair to wonder if he might regress a little in the Santa Anita Derby after turning in such a hard-fought effort in his first start of the season, but his workouts since the San Felipe suggest that he has maintained his form and could be ready for another big run on Saturday.

But despite Bolt d'Oro's obvious credentials, I'm going to side with Justify. Trained by Bob Baffert, the son of Scat Daddy didn't debut until February 18th, but caught everyone's attention when he won a seven-furlong maiden race with ridiculous ease after dueling for the lead through fractions of :21.80 and :44.37, extremely fast for Santa Anita at the time. Despite being part of such a quick pace, Justify drew off in the homestretch to win by 9 ½ lengths with a 104 Beyer speed figure.

Justify was just as impressive, if not more so, in a one-mile allowance race at Santa Anita on March 11th. A slow start left him in second place early on, but that didn't stop him from rolling past the leaders around the far turn, clocking six furlongs in 1:09.64, and pulling away to win by 6 ½ lengths with a 101 Beyer.

Obviously Justify will be facing a much tougher task in the Santa Anita Derby--he'll be stretching out another furlong in distance and facing significantly tougher competition--but his terrific early speed could give him a tactical advantage over Bolt d'Oro, who prefers to stalk the pace or close from behind, which means that Bolt d'Oro may have to make an early move to keep Justify from shaking loose around the far turn.

Even still, catching Justify might not prove possible in the Santa Anita Derby. Once in a while, a horse comes along that gives the impression of being a true star in the making, and I think Justify has the potential to not only win the Santa Anita Derby, but the Kentucky Derby as well.

Also worth considering in the Santa Anita Derby is Instilled  Regard, who has been flying under the radar a bit since finishing fourth in the Risen Star Stakes (gr. II) on February 17th at Fair Grounds. However, the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained colt endured a tough trip that day--racing wide while trying to close into fast finishing fractions--and he had previously showcased excellent form in graded stakes company, winning the Lecomte Stakes (gr. III) at Fair Grounds and holding his own against Solomini and McKinzie in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity (gr. I).

I don't know if Instilled Regard can step up his game enough to beat Justify and/or Bolt d'Oro if the two favorites run their best race, but he's certainly a clear candidate to round out the trifecta, and in the event that one of the favorites falters, Instilled Regard could pick up the pieces to finish in the exacta.

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


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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.

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