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....
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
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.
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
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
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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.