Happy New Year and Derby Prep Picks

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

Happy New Year, everyone! I hope you didn't blink, or you might have missed the first Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race of 2019—the schedule kicked off right away with the January 1st Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, and the series will continue this Saturday with the Sham Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita.

With a total of 17 Kentucky Derby qualification points at stake, the Sham is certainly the highlight of the weekend, though the Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park has also drawn a strong field of promising three-year-olds. It might not offer qualification points like the Sham, but the one-mile race did attract the highly regarded Code of Honor, one of the top early Kentucky Derby contenders.

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

Sham Stakes (gr. III)

Trainer Bob Baffert has won this race five times, including the inaugural running in 2001 and three renewals since 2014. Not surprisingly, Baffert's recent success in the Sham has contributed to a streak of short-priced winners—since the Sham became a Road to the Kentucky Derby points race in 2013, the highest winning payoff has been $5.20, and favorites have gone 5-for-6.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that it's going to be tough for anyone to upset #5 Coliseum, one of two Baffert runners entered in the Sham. A well-bred son of Tapit out of the Grade 1-winning Menifee mare Game Face, Coliseum received plenty of hype prior to his debut sprinting seven furlongs on November 17th at Del Mar, and he definitely lived up to expectations. Seizing the early lead, Coliseum opened up on the far turn, was well in command turning for home, and cruised to victory an uncontested winner by 6 ¾ lengths with a 91 Beyer speed figure.

Granted, Coliseum had things pretty much his own way that day, but there isn't much speed in the Sham field and Coliseum should be poised to receive another perfect trip either setting the pace or stalking #3 Savagery through the early going. He's been training up a storm since his debut with a series of bullet workouts at Santa Anita, and Baffert has already expressed his belief that Coliseum will be more effective racing around two turns. No matter how you slice it, Coliseum is the horse to beat, and even at a short price he's my pick to win.

Baffert could potentially sweep the exacta with #7 Much Better, who returns to dirt after finishing last with a tough trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I), but my preference for the runner-up spot is #6 Gunmetal Gray. This capable son of Exchange Rate hasn't run a bad race since stretching out around two turns, most notably finishing second in the American Pharoah Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita and fifth with a somewhat challenging trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I). Gunmetal Gray wound up too far off the pace in the latter race and should benefit from the drop in class and smaller field provided by the Sham Stakes. In terms of speed figures, he fits well against Coliseum and is the logical choice to post a mild upset in the event that the favorite misfires.

Mucho Macho Man Stakes

Generally speaking, I have been a fan of #4 Code of Honor and believe he could wind up being a legitimate contender in the 2019 Kentucky Derby. From the moment he won his debut in gate-to-wire fashion at Saratoga, he had the appearance of a promising horse—after all, trainer Shug McGaughey rarely wins with first-time starters, so Code of Honor's powerful entrance to the sport was as eye-catching as it was unexpected.

Even better, Code of Honor demonstrated that his maiden win was no fluke by overcoming a stumble at the start of the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) to rally from last place and finish a strong second behind the front-running Complexity. How often do you see a lightly-raced two-year-old make a 180-degree change in running style and shrug it off to hit the board in a Grade 1 race?

Unfortunately, little has gone right for Code of Honor since the Champagne. After missing the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with an illness, Code of Honor was pointed toward the December 1st Remsen Stakes (gr. II), but ultimately skipped that race as well after failing to train as enthusiastically as in the past.

Now Code of Honor is down in Florida looking to get his season underway, and while he might win the Mucho Macho Man on class alone, this race does have the appearance of being a prep in the truest sense. Since arriving at the Payson Park training center, Code of Honor has posted only four workouts, none of them longer than a half-mile. Remember, the Kentucky Derby is still four months away, and there's no reason to have Code of Honor fully cranked this early in the season. As much as I like him for down the road, I have to wonder if Code of Honor is vulnerable to an upset this Saturday.

That's why I'm going to take a shot against him with the experienced local runner #2 Well Defined, a dominant 7 ½-length winner of the 8.5-furlong Florida Sire In Reality Stakes at Gulfstream Park in September. His gate-to-wire victory was achieved with such authority that Well Defined earned a 91 Beyer speed figure, slightly higher than Code of Honor's 90 from the Champagne.

This impressive performance prompted a start in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), but from the moment the gates opened Well Defined was in trouble. A slow start required jockey Mike Smith to vigorously urge Well Defined to assume his customary position on the lead, but Well Defined wasn't quite quick enough to hold his position and wound up racing behind and inside of horses heading around the first turn. At that point, Well Defined put his head up, backed out of the pocket, and gradually retreated from there to finish twelfth while never asked for much run in the final few furlongs.

I'm tempted to just draw a line through that effort and assume that Well Defined will rebound in a big way while dropping in class, returning to Gulfstream Park, and hopefully reverting to front-running tactics. He could potentially face pace challenges from #5 Gladiator King and #3 Trophy Chaser, but if Well Defined breaks well from post two, he'll have plenty of time to secure an ideal position while racing out of the chute and down the long Gulfstream Park backstretch. The best part? He might even start at a bit of a price thanks to the much-hyped presence of Code of Honor.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes?


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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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