May 31, 2020

Eight Rings rebounds with a vengeance in American Pharoah

Eight Rings and jockey John Velazquez win the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita Park on Friday, September 27, 2019 © BENOIT PHOTO

Expected to star as the 1-2 favorite before a mishap in the Del Mar Futurity (G1), Eight Rings seized control of Friday’s $301,404 American Pharoah (G1) as if he’d been spoiling for another chance. The Bob Baffert pupil dictated terms throughout this “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) over the same Santa Anita track and trip. Moreover, the 6-5 favorite drew off in a manner suggesting that the 10 points earned toward the 2020 Kentucky Derby (G1) are merely an opening deposit.

The newly blinkered Eight Rings was teaming up for the first time with Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez, who earlier guided stablemate Bast to a much tighter verdict in the Chandelier (G1). Velazquez worked hard for that record-breaking 661st North American graded stakes victory, while number 662 was easier.

Blasting right to the lead, Eight Rings didn’t veer and unseat his rider as he’d done in the opening strides of the Del Mar Futurity, an incident that prompted a jockey switch here. Original rider Drayden Van Dyke was injured in the miscue, leaving Baffert unsure whether he’d be ready to climb aboard on Friday. As it turned out, Van Dyke was back in action, but Baffert had already lured Velazquez from New York.

Eight Rings was pursued by American Theorem, a son of race honoree American Pharoah, who captured this feature in its former guise as the FrontRunner (G1). Eight Rings hails from the same male line, being by Empire Maker, the sire of American Pharoah’s own sire, Pioneerof the Nile. Comparisons are inadvisable at this early stage, but you might say that Eight Rings tried his hand at a “Pharoah” impersonation.

After doling out splits of :23.72, :47.06, and 1:11.71, Eight Rings bid the hard-trying American Theorem adieu and crossed the wire six lengths clear despite still looking a tad green. His time for 1 1/16 miles on a track rated fast, but playing deep and tiring, was 1:45.41 – faster than the 1:46.10 Bast needed in a dogfight.

American Theorem did his sire proud by finishing best of the rest and garnering 4 Derby points. Another 2 1/4 lengths back came third-placer Storm the Court (2 points), a neck up on Express Train in fourth (1 point).

Storm the Court was himself rebounding from the Del Mar Futurity fracas, for he had been eliminated by colliding with Eight Rings that day. Their performances in the American Pharoah underscore how differently the Del Mar Futurity would have played out, had Eight Rings not gone astray.

American Pharoah fifth Shoplifted, previously the Hopeful (G1) runner-up, didn’t exactly boost that form but at least made headway from last. Next came a trio from the Del Mar Futurity – Defense Wins, Fore Left, and the upset winner Nucky. Collusion Illusion, not seen since taking the Best Pal (G2), was pulled up but walked off according to the chart.

Eight Rings evidently showed enough from the beginning to inspire his name, an allusion to New England Patriots head coach Bill Belichick’s eight Super Bowl rings. His reputation preceded him as he was bet down to 3-5 favoritism in his career debut at Del Mar, and he ran up to billing in a 6 1/4-length rout of next-out romper Express Train.

Bred by WinStar Farm in Kentucky and sold for $520,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September, the dark bay races for SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Frederick Hertrich III, John D. Fielding, and Golconda Stables. His scorecard stands at 3-2-0-0, $216,951.

Aside from his trainer, sire line, and running style, Eight Rings can claim another parallel to American Pharoah. He is also out of a speed-oriented Storm Cat-line mare, in this case Canadian Grade 3 heroine Purely Hot, by Pure Prize. Now Eight Rings just needs to take on Pharoah’s professional mindset.

Quotes from Santa Anita

Winning rider John Velazquez: “He’s still not 100 percent confident in what he needs to do. Obviously he’s very talented, but he needs to put it together and go on. He still ran a good race, but you can see he has some room to improve. If he can put his mind to running, he’ll be a dangerous horse.”

“I wanted to put him into the race, and that way he could get his mind on running. I was pretty comfortable with the way he was moving in the backstretch. But he kept kind of wandering, so I felt like I had to keep reminding him to focus. It’s only his second (completed) start, so he’s still learning basically.”

Winning trainer Bob Baffert: “The horse was training really well. I told Johnny V. to ride him with confidence. I thought he might be in front. Johnny said let’s get him away from there, and he’s figured out this track. He gigged him a little bit, but he said, ‘Wow, he’s really fast.’ He just got out there really quick and I was actually just watching his ears the whole way. Johnny said he’ll be going good, then he’ll start looking around and lagging, and all the way down the stretch he was still looking around.

“But it was a good race for him, coming off that last disastrous race. I’m just so fortunate that Drayden (Van Dyke) didn’t get hurt worse. I’ve got to thank my entire team. Everybody’s been on him; even Joe Talamo’s worked him for me. When you have a good one like this, you want him to really perform well.

“I’m happy for (trainer) George Papaprodromou that his American Pharoah (ridgling, American Theorem) ran second. My heart is still with American Pharoah so I’m glad to see his babies are doing well. I’m blessed and fortunate to get these kinds of horses.”

Jockey Tiago Pereira on runner-up American Theorem: “I hoped to win, obviously, but I think it was a great race. I followed a horse that was great as well. I am happy, second place is good, and I continue confident for the next race. I think I have a great horse. It will win many big races.”