Celebrating 2020 with Derby Prep Picks

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

Happy New Year!

The year has barely begun, but the Road to the Kentucky Derby is already off to a fast start. On New Year's Day, Independence Hall overcame a sluggish start to win the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct, and on Saturday, a few other promising colts will endeavor to join the Derby trail in the $100,000 Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita and the $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park.

Let's tackle both races and try to start the year on a winning note:

Sham Stakes (G3)

On paper, this one-mile race appears to run through the barn of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The five-time Kentucky Derby-winning conditioner will saddle the promising maiden winners #1 Authentic and #4 Azul Coast, who rate a strong chance to give Baffert a 1-2 sweep and his fourth Sham victory in seven years.

Take a quick glance at their bare form and pedigrees, and Azul Coast looks like the colt to beat. A son of Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver out of Nassau Stakes (G2) winner Sky Treasure, Azul Coast boasts the stouter pedigree and is already proven going a mile, having rallied strongly to win his debut by four lengths over this distance at Los Alamitos. Hot jockey Joel Rosario (6-for-16 at Santa Anita so far this meet) will accept the mount for the Sham.

In contrast, Authentic is a son of Into Mischief out of a mare by Mr. Greeley, a pedigree geared more toward speed than stamina. Authentic will also be stretching out significantly in distance for the Sham, having employed pace-tracking tactics to win a 5 ½-furlong maiden sprint at Del Mar two months ago.

But a few other factors suggest Authentic is the better play. In terms of Beyer speed figures, Authentic is the faster colt, having posted an 87 in his debut compared to the 75 put up by Azul Coast. Jockey Drayden Van Dyke rode both colts to their respective maiden wins, and he'll stick with Authentic for the Sham.

Also, for what it's worth, Baffert rarely debuts his best runners in two-turn races, preferring to start them off in sprints. Even the late-maturing Arrogate got underway in a sprint before stretching out in distance. When Baffert debuts a juvenile running a mile or farther, they rarely develop into major stakes winners, so I'm hesitant to get too excited about Azul Coast's eye-catching first start.

Authentic might be stretching out in distance, but this is a strong angle for Baffert, who wins at a 30% rate with runners tackling a route race for the first time. Authentic certainly has more tactical speed than Azul Coast, who trailed for the first half-mile in his debut, and speed has long been the weapon of Baffert's best horses. In this battle of the Bafferts, I'll side with Authentic.

Underneath, I'll play #6 Taishan in equal strength with Azul Coast. One of two runners in this field trained by Richard Baltas, Taishan finished fifth in his debut at Del Mar while facing a quality field, then returned 2 ½ months later to win a one-mile maiden race at Santa Anita with pace-pressing tactics. A son of Twirling Candy, Taishan has the tactical speed to work out a clean trip just behind the leaders, and the 81 Beyer he posted for his maiden win suggests he can be competitive against Azul Coast for the exotics.

Mucho Macho Man Stakes

Four stakes winners are among the seven entrants in this one-turn mile, though most handicappers will focus their attention on just one: #2 Chance It. As a 2-year-old, Chance It threw down three straight 90 Beyers while sprinting, and he successfully carried his abundant speed over 1 1/16 miles in the Florida Sire In Reality Stakes, pulling away to score by 7 ¼ lengths with an 84 Beyer.

But Chance It is facing some formidable opponents in the Mucho Macho Man, and there's no guarantee he'll get a clean, unpressured trip on the front end. The stoutly-bred #4 As Seen On Tv has shown surprisingly good form sprinting, winning the 6 ½-furlong Juvenile Sprint Stakes at Gulfstream Park West with a 91 Beyer, and he should only improve while stretching out in distance. Like Chance It, As Seen On Tv has tactical speed and figures to be prominent from the outset.

#3 Smash Factor is another serious pace player, having employed front-running tactics to finish second in both the In Reality Stakes and the Juvenile Sprint Stakes. #7 Inter Miami, a runaway maiden claiming winner at Gulfstream, also brings speed to the equation for hot trainer Alexis Delgado.

This abundance of speed could make things tricky for Chance It, who has drawn inside all the other pace players. The long run down the backstretch could also increase the intensity of the early pace, setting up the potential for a meltdown in the homestretch.

Such a scenario could prove favorable to #1 South Bend, who has already faced (and beaten) some major Kentucky Derby contenders, including Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) winner Silver Prospector, Remsen Stakes (G2) winner Shotski, and Remington Springboard Mile runner-up Answer In.

A son of Algorithms trained by Stanley Hough, South Bend won the first three starts of his career and was particularly impressive in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs. Racing over a one-turn mile configuration similar to the setup at Gulfstream Park, South Bend waited in traffic before rallying to defeat With Anticipation Stakes (G3) winner Fighting Seabee, plus Silver Prospector and Shotski.

South Bend subsequently disappointed in the 1 1/16-mile Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, finishing sixth by 4 ¾ lengths, but I think his effort was better than it appears. South Bend was stretching out around two turns for the first time while racing over a sloppy, sealed track, and he also suffered from a major change in racing tactics, tracking the leader in second place instead of settling off the pace as usual. For these reasons, I'll forgive South Bend for weakening in the homestretch.

For the Mucho Macho Man, South Bend will cut back to a one-turn mile, and the expected quick pace should make it simple for him to drop back early on and come running in the homestretch. Trainer Stanley Hough compiled a terrific record from limited starters at Gulfstream last winter (he went 6-for-16 between December 2018 and March 2019), suggesting any horse he saddles at Gulfstream this winter is worth watching.

With all of these positives to consider, I'll side with South Bend to spring a mild upset in the Mucho Macho Man Stakes.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the first Kentucky Derby prep races of 2020?


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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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