October 29, 2020

Five points to ponder: 2020 American Pharoah Stakes

Notable Exception was a convincing debut winner at Arlington (Coady Photography)

The first Grade 1 scoring race on the Road to the 2021 Kentucky Derby (G1), Saturday’s American Pharoah Stakes (G1) has a more immediate ramification: a free ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1).

The Santa Anita feature identifies the pro tem leader of the West Coast 2-year-old males. But with Del Mar Futurity (G1) hero Dr. Schivel taking the rest of the season off, and a very intriguing shipper in the line-up, the American Pharoah could theoretically complicate rather than clarify. Even that scenario would at least reveal where we stand going into the Breeders’ Cup.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Spielberg has yet to furnish a blockbuster.

As the runner-up to Dr. Schivel in both his debut and the Del Mar Futurity, Spielberg is the closest thing to a form choice. But juvenile form is a moving target, and that makes Spielberg a potential underlay as a twice-raced maiden.

On the plus side, the Bob Baffert trainee did improve from one start to the next. Spielberg was no match for the more experienced Dr. Schivel when beaten 5 3/4 lengths as the 4-5 favorite first out, but he reduced the deficit to 1 3/4 lengths in their Del Mar Futurity rematch. Spielberg might have fared even better if his rail draw didn’t put him in a tougher spot tactically, and to his credit, he kept digging in after being passed and went by Dr. Schivel on gallop-out.

The stretch-out to 1 1/16 miles should help the son of Union Rags and a Smart Strike mare, and he’s drawn better here in post 5 with a new pilot in Luis Saez. At the same time, unless you’re convinced that the Dr. Schivel form is the gold standard, it’s tempting to wonder, is he just going to find another one better?

I’ve tried to leave his $1 million yearling price aside in hopes that it wouldn’t affect my view one way or another. Spielberg needs to break through or the wait-and-see approach will wear thin.

2. Notable Exception’s raid might be a clever gambit.

Based at Keeneland, the Calumet blueblood could have stayed home for the Oct. 3 Breeders’ Futurity (G1), a “Win and You’re In” right at the Breeders’ Cup host site. According to Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free, trainer Jack Sisterson mentioned the timing of the American Pharoah – striking while the iron’s hot rather than waiting a week – as his rationale for pitching Notable Exception in here.

My own personal hypothesis is that the Breeders’ Futurity is coming up a more challenging spot on paper. That’s partially rooted in my uncertainty about the California 2-year-olds. (Full disclosure: I was most interested in Superman Shaq until he wasn’t entered in this spot.) If there really is a monster in this race, he’s in disguise. Conversely, there’s no missing the star potential of a few of the Breeders’ Futurity nominees like Calibrate and Essential Quality.

Notable Exception could hardly have looked any better in his debut on the Arlington Polytrack. Showing more speed than might have been expected for a Street Sense colt out of an A. P. Indy mare, he attended the pace on the rail before drawing clear. Notable Exception has been training sharply on the dirt at Keeneland, and he’s entitled to show even more around two turns. Sisterson’s firing 27% with his runners trying a route for the first time.

3. Waspirant and Touchdown Brown are examples of local talent on the rise.

Part of my uncertainty about Spielberg is just how to gauge a 6-runner Del Mar Futurity when promising types are emerging elsewhere on the circuit. The John Shirreffs-trained Waspirant is a case in point: introduced in the same 6-furlong maiden as Spielberg, the fellow Union Rags colt was a non-threatening fourth. But Waspirant moved forward second time out, and on the step up to a mile, to beat a pretty consistent yardstick in Ambivalent. The Wygod homebred still looked a bit green, lackadaisical even, so he adds blinkers here. Granted that’s not a statistically successful move for Shirreffs, but the trainer is 24% in graded stakes and 26% with last-out maiden winners.

Although Touchdown Brown has kept to Cal-restricted company so far, it’s an intriguing counterfactual to imagine how he might have fared in Del Mar’s graded stakes. The Rafael Becerra pupil turned in a very taking debut here back in June, sitting off the pace before sweeping to a 5 1/4-length decision. That made him the 11-10 favorite in the Graduation, where he never recovered from an early incident and trailed in an obvious toss-out. The eventual winner, Positivity, had to survive an objection after coming over on him, forcing him to steady and lose all position.)

Touchdown Brown next experimented with blinkers in the I’m Smokin, launched a sustained rally to miss narrowly, and recorded a 91 Brisnet Speed rating that equals Spielberg’s best. Off that evidence, the Cairo Prince colt is looking for more ground – and Becerra is 20% in the “first at route” category. The blinkers come off too.

4. Turf performers Get Her Number and Rombauer have contrasting styles.

Get Her Number and Rombauer are switching to dirt after their respective fourth- and sixth-place finishes in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf. While their sires get runners on both surfaces, Get Her Number has the tactical speed that bodes better for dirt. In his turf sprint debut, the Peter Miller pupil chased and kept on determinedly to deny next-out romper Commander Khai (who runs in Saturday’s Speakeasy). Get Her Number got away with slow fractions in the Juvenile Turf but couldn’t quicken enough late, holding for a gritty fourth in a blanket finish.

Rombauer, by Twirling Candy, has the more stereotypical look of a turf closer. The Michael McCarthy juvenile exploded from well off a slow pace to nail the perfect-trip Dyn O Mite, despite having to avoid a green rival who was shifting right into him. If it’s premature to pigeonhole a youngster who’s run only twice, his similar trip for sixth in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf suggests he’s not on the verge of changing. With downhill turf specialists Cambiocorsa and California Flag as his “aunt” and “uncle,” Rombauer might prove more effective on the grass.

5. Weston might have already peaked – or not.

Since his freshman sire Hit It a Bomb prospered as a fall 2-year-old himself, notably snaring the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1), it’s hazardous to write off Weston too soon. Still, the most straightforward interpretation of the evidence is that he was precocious enough to win a 4 1/2-furlong maiden over the troubled Dr. Schivel, and follow-up in a hard-fought Best Pal (G2), before the others surpassed him.

Yet Weston fans do have a straw to clutch to explain his third to Dr. Schivel and Spielberg in the Del Mar Futurity: he was drawn in between them, and accordingly had the less comfortable task of vying while feeling surrounded if not claustrophobic. Beyond the psychological factor, though, Weston was also carrying the top weight of 124 pounds as the Best Pal winner. Maybe the three pounds he gave Dr. Schivel weren’t decisive, but the five-pound concession to Spielberg was likely significant.

Weston gets another chance at Spielberg at level weights on Saturday. The distance figures to be more of an advantage for Spielberg, since Weston doesn’t quite give off the vibe of a horse who’ll move up around two turns. If so, he can always revert to sprints.