September 27, 2020

Five points to ponder: Santa Anita Derby

Honor A. P. is a son of Honor Code and Hollywood Story (Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com)

Saturday’s $400,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1) is a pivotal race for two prominent Kentucky Derby (G1) hopefuls. If not completely determinative of their chances at Churchill Downs, the 1 1/8-mile test nonetheless promises to be the most informative of the Southern California preps.

Bob Baffert’s undefeated Authentic has been installed as the 4-5 morning-line favorite after sharp victories in the San Felipe (G2) and Sham (G3), but San Felipe runner-up Honor A. P. brings the stronger classic profile. Their renewed rivalry is likelier to answer questions than open up a new series of arguments.

And although it’s difficult to pry ourselves away from the leading players, the other five entrants can play a role in the scramble for Derby points on the 100-40-20-10 scale.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Authentic encounters his biggest challenge so far.

The incremental increase in distance from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/8 miles wouldn’t be significant in itself, as long as the speedy son of Into Mischief controlled the tempo. That’s the rub here, however, with the potential for Shooters Shoot to serve it up to him early. Shooters Shoot is drawn inside of Authentic (post 3 versus post 7), and he boasts Brisnet Early Pace ratings as high as 103-110 last out.

Authentic could well emulate his now-retired stablemate, Nadal, and prove flexible enough to track. Yet he’s also been on more of a learning curve than Nadal was, displaying more greenness and immaturity. It’s plausible to envision Authentic getting himself embroiled in a pace tussle, and if he avoids that, does he still punch on as effectively as a stalker?

Alternatively, it’s possible that Authentic outfoots Shooters Shoot for the lead. In this scenario, though, he’d probably have to use more gas to clear him, and Shooters Shoot would be close enough to prevent Authentic from getting too comfortable. Either way, the race is shaping up as a more challenging environment than his prior routes.

2. Honor A. P. benefits from a better set-up than in the San Felipe.

That holds true beyond just the prospect of a contested pace. Trainer John Shirreffs initially pointed Honor A. P. to the Sham, only to have to miss the Jan. 4 contest with a setback. Thankfully it was short-lived, but he still missed training time. Thus preparing to make his belated sophomore bow in the San Felipe, off a nearly five-month break since his maiden win, was very much Plan B.

Considering Shirreffs’ conservative approach, Honor A. P. was obviously going to need the San Felipe. Simply finishing with interest for a minor award would have been enough. So the fact that he was able to stay within striking range of Authentic’s solid pace, and even loom briefly before fitness told, was a bonus. The move-forward angle would have been more telling on the original Santa Anita Derby date of April 4, as opposed to the two-month pandemic delay of game, but at least he’s had a continuous worktab.

Moreover, Honor A. P. is the type to come into his own with maturity. We’ve yet to see the best from this son of champion older male Honor Code and multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Hollywood Story.

3. Azul Coast is the only runner with a win at the distance.

The caveat is that came in the Feb. 15 El Camino Real Derby on the Tapeta at Golden Gate Fields. Baffert had entered Azul Coast in the Sunland Derby next, only to have it wiped out by the pandemic closures. This is the fall-back position for a useful horse who’s in the shadow of superior stablemates.

At the same time, Azul Coast has claims to churn on for a placing at a big price. He was no match for Authentic when a distant second in the Sham, but the combination of more time, distance, and pace might shave off a couple of those lengths. The son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver teams up with Umberto Rispoli.

4. Anneau d’Or returns to the scene of his most memorable performance.

The sticking point, of course, is that his Grade 1 near-miss came in last fall’s less-than-vintage renewal of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita. The form has taken so many knocks that it’s virtually a punching bag, while the evidence continues to mount that the best entrant in the Juvenile scratched – Maxfield.

Anneau d’Or has contributed to this narrative himself. His inability to pass Thousand Words in an off-track Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) suggested that blinkers could help. A poor effort when adding headgear in the second Risen Star (G2) division at Fair Grounds undermined that talking point. Sans blinkers in Charlatan’s division of the Arkansas Derby (G1), he retreated to fifth.

There is one last straw to grasp: Anneau d’Or was always earmarked for the Santa Anita Derby, and his Oaklawn venture was something to do until Santa Anita emerged from its COVID-19 hiatus. The Blaine Wright trainee also picks up Hall of Famer Victor Espinoza for the first time. If this is the last chance saloon for Anneau d’Or on the Triple Crown trail, the silver lining is that the well-bred Medaglia d’Oro colt has the option of reverting to turf.

5. Shooters Shoot and Rushie come off promising efforts at Oaklawn.

Shooters Shoot and Rushie sport several points in common: Both are making their stakes debuts with high-profile pilots, both have finished best of the rest behind Charlatan, and both come off Oaklawn allowance scores over stakes-quality rivals.

Late Triple Crown nominee Shooters Shoot has posted increasing Brisnet Speed ratings with every start, indicating that he’s progressed since Charlatan ran away from him in a 6-furlong maiden. The Peter Eurton trainee has won his two ensuing races at a mile, going wire-to-wire over a rallying Friar’s Road here and taking his game to Hot Springs to outduel Blackberry Wine. That was supposed to launch him to the Arkansas Derby, but Shooters Shoot scratched from the first division with a fever. Instead of possibly being a gadfly for Charlatan at Oaklawn, Shooters Shoot appears poised to play that role versus Authentic. Note that he lures Abel Cedillo.

Rushie, dusted by Charlatan in an entry-level allowance, picked himself right back up to capture a similar event on the Arkansas Derby undercard. The Michael McCarthy pupil defeated Todd Pletcher’s Candy Tycoon, the Fountain of Youth (G2) runner-up who was taking a class drop after a sixth in the Florida Derby (G1). From the first crop of Liam’s Map, Rushie has the tactical speed to secure a good early position with Flavien Prat.

Stablemate Friar’s Road is a thrice-raced maiden, but just notched a 103 Brisnet Late Pace rating in a 9-furlong affair at Oaklawn. The 6-5 favorite in that Arkansas Derby Day maiden, the Quality Road colt threaded through the pack on the far turn and closed for second. The winner, Hunt the Front, is among the newly added Triple Crown nominees.