Why I'm Picking Shancelot in the Sprint Championship

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

Having come down with an annoying cold this week, I should preface my analysis of Saturday's $300,000 Santa Anita Sprint Championship (gr. I) with the disclaimer that my handicapping will either be very good or very bad—nowhere in the middle. If my handicapping reflects how I feel (not so great), the results could be ugly. On the other hand, maybe being sick will prevent me from overthinking the race (as I'm occasionally apt to do), leading to a brilliantly intuitive conclusion. I guess we'll find out on Saturday!

Although the Santa Anita Sprint Championship is open to older runners, on paper this six-furlong sprint appears to be a match between two exciting sophomores: #2 Omaha Beach and #3 Shancelot. Both have shown flashes of serious talent, and at one time or another I've gone on and on about the virtues of both colts here on Unlocking Winners.

Of the pair, I suspect Omaha Beach will start as the favorite. Winner of the Rebel Stakes (G2) and Arkansas Derby (G1) during the spring, Omaha Beach was favored to win the Kentucky Derby until an entrapped epiglottis forced him to withdraw from the race, a disappointing development that will forever leave us wondering how he might have fared in the Triple Crown.

Unfortunately, nothing has gone right for Omaha Beach since then. He took a while to bounce back from corrective surgery, then missed a scheduled start in the Shared Belief Stakes due to an illness. The Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) was briefly considered as a target before trainer Richard Mandella opted to run Omaha Beach around one turn in the easier Ack Ack Stakes (gr. III) instead, but this decision was rendered moot due to an interrupted workout beforehand, which prompted Mandella to cancel the Ack Ack plans and circle the Santa Anita Sprint Championship instead.

Since the Santa Anita Sprint Championship is essentially the fourth choice for Omaha Beach's comeback race, I'm hesitant to trust him at a short price. Yes, he's been training up a storm at Santa Anita, attracting a ton of attention on social media, and I'm sure he's ready to bring a nice effort on Saturday. But Omaha Beach has never run shorter than seven furlongs—indeed, all but one of his runs have come over a mile or farther—and I'm not sure sprinting six furlongs off a layoff will be his strong suit.

In contrast, I have no such qualms about Shancelot, who should relish the chance to sprint a pure six furlongs. Trained by Jorge Navarro, this son of Shanghai Bobby showed tremendous potential in his first three starts, most notably dominating the 6 ½-furlong Amsterdam Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga by 12 ½ lengths.

By every metric, Shancelot's Amsterdam effort was extraordinary. Carving out blazing fractions of :21.79 and :43.94 would have exhausted most horses, but Shancelot simply widened under his own power around the turn and stayed strong down the homestretch, clocking six furlongs in 1:07.63 (faster than the track record) en route to a final time of 1:14.01, which translated to a massive 121 Beyer speed figure.

It was only logical for Shancelot to regress in the seven-furlong H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (gr. I) four weeks later, and indeed, he came back to earth sharply while finishing third. But I think Shancelot's effort was better than it appears at first glance. On a day when the rail at Saratoga was dead and tiring, Shancelot raced inside for most of the race, but nevertheless led into the stretch before succumbing by a couple of noses in the final strides.

Already we've seen a couple of high-profile runners bounce back from racing along the dead rail on the day of the Jerkens—Owendale, fifth in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) after saving ground all the way, came back to decisively win the Oklahoma Derby (gr. III), while Wow Cat returned to run second in the Beldame Stakes (gr. II) after finishing nowhere with a ground-saving trip in the Personal Ensign Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga.

Since the Jerkens, Shancelot has continued to throw down fast workouts, suggesting he's still in good form. On September 15 at Monmouth Park, he rocketed five furlongs in a blazing :57 flat while going "handily"—without urging! For good measure, he shipped to Santa Anita a week early and got in a breeze over the local main track, working a half-mile in :47 1/5 on September 29.

It's also worth noting the main track at Santa Anita favored speed on opening weekend. It's almost as if the slow and tiring racing surface is leaving late runners too exhausted to unleash their rallies. Since Shancelot knows of only one way to run—like a rocket from the moment the gates open—he could find Santa Anita much more forgiving them Saratoga, where RacingFlow.com recorded a noteworthy bias in favor of closers on the day of the Jerkens. Cutting back to six furlongs should also help Shancelot's chances.

So in this battle of sprinting sophomores, I'll side with Shancelot and hope the hype generated by Omaha Beach leads to a nice price on this tried-and-true, pure sprinter.

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


Want to test your handicapping skills against fellow Unlocking Winners readers? Check out the Unlocking Winners contests page—there's a new challenge every week!


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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