Playing it Straight in the California Cup Derby

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

On a quiet weekend of mid-January racing, one of the best races on the agenda is the $200,000 California Cup Derby for California-bred three-year-olds racing 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita.

Six horses are entered to race, including a pair of proven stakes winners. Let's take a horse-by-horse look at the field, then assemble selections to be used for straight exacta, trifecta, and/or superfecta wagers:

#1 Highland Ghost (5-1): Ultra-hot jockey Flavien Prat (a 39% winner at Santa Anita this meet) will guide Highland Ghost, a son of Santa Anita H. (G1) hero Shaman Ghost. The chestnut sophomore is shipping south off a pace-pressing victory in a 5 1/2-furlong allowance optional claimer over the Tapeta track at Golden Gate Fields.

But Highland Ghost's dirt form is unremarkable, and his career-best 83 Brisnet Speed rating looks a little light against his California Cup Derby rivals. A spot in the superfecta might be the ceiling for Highland Ghost's potential.

#2 Sippin N Kissin (20-1): Dirt or turf, sprinting or routing—it doesn't make a difference to Sippin N Kissin, who has run well over a variety of conditions. But the son of Stay Thirsty has yet to win a race from seven starts, and his career-best 73 Brisnet Speed rating suggests he'll need a step forward to challenge on Saturday.

#3 Fast Draw Munnings (4-1): Never out of the trifecta in three starts, Fast Draw Munnings has shown promise over a wide range of distances. After winning his debut dashing 5 1/2 furlongs at Los Alamitos, the Jeff Mullins trainee ran third in Del Mar's seven-furlong Golden State Juvenile S. and third again in the one-mile King Glorious S. at Los Alamitos.

Fast Draw Munnings is versatile in terms of running style, and his Brisnet Speed ratings (82, 88, and 86) are respectable. But he finished behind California Cup Derby rivals Finneus and Straight Up G in his two stakes attempts, so Fast Draw Munnings will need a step forward to secure better than a trifecta finish on Saturday. The good news is, Mullins wins at a 21% rate with horses running long for the second time, and a sharp five-furlong gate breeze in :59 1/5 last week hints Fast Draw Munnings might be sitting on improvement.

#4 Finneus (5-2): The most accomplished of the California Cup Derby entrants is Finneus, who displayed strong form against tougher company when finishing second in both the Best Pal S. (G2) and Del Mar Futurity (G1) during the summer. He reiterated his talent in the seven-furlong Golden State Juvenile S. on Nov. 5 at Del Mar, rallying gamely to beat next-out Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) winner Slow Down Andy by half a length.

But Finneus subsequently settled for second place in the one-mile King Glorious S. at Los Alamitos, beaten 3 1/2 lengths by California Cup Derby rival Straight Up G. It's worth noting Finneus boasts a 5-2-2-1 record sprinting and a 2-0-1-0 record running long, and longer trips seem to dull his stretch kick. Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez (a 37% winner this meet) is named to ride, but I wonder if the distance of the California Cup Derby will stretch the limits of Finneus' stamina.

#5 Straight Up G (4-5): It's easy to see why Straight Up G is an odds-on favorite to win the California Cup Derby. Since finishing fourth behind Slow Down Andy in his debut at Santa Anta, the Richard Baltas trainee has been unstoppable. Straight Up G had no trouble wiring a six-furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar by 5 1/4 lengths, after which he trounced Finneus by 3 1/2 lengths in the King Glorious S.

With Brisnet Speed ratings of 90 and 92 under his belt, Straight Up G is the fastest horse in the California Cup Derby. His pacesetting speed is an asset, considering there isn't a ton of pace in Saturday's field. If he gets out in front under Ricardo Gonzalez (who has gone 3-for-4 riding for Baltas over the last two months), Straight Up G can cruise to a second consecutive stakes win.

#6 Agador Spartacus (20-1): The second son of Shaman Ghost in Saturday's field has cracked the trifecta three times while competing on both dirt and turf. But his 0-for-8 resume and career-best 83 Brisnet Speed rating are two stats suggesting the California Cup Derby will be a difficult spot for Agador Spartacus to challenge for victory.


1st: Straight Up G
2nd: Fast Draw Munnings
3rd: Finneus
4th: Highland Ghost

If our perfect combination comes in, we'll have every chance to translate straight exotic wagers into lucrative payoffs, even if the California Cup Derby comes up chalky overall.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the California Cup Derby?


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! (Please note: older contest entries can be found here.)

J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

Recent Posts

More Blogs