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
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
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
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.
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.
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.