February 24, 2024

Five points to ponder: 2021 Sham Stakes

Life Is Good winning his debut at Del Mar - © Benoit Photo
Life Is Good winning his debut at Del Mar © Benoit Photo

With the turning of the calendar page to 2021, the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail is already cranking up the heat, as Life Is Good reappears in Saturday’s $100,000 Sham Stakes (G3).

The presence of the early Derby favorite gives the Sham significance beyond its 10-4-2-1 points structure. If Life Is Good passes his stakes and two-turn test, the Bob Baffert trainee would solidify his status ahead of Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager Jan. 22-24.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Life Is Good’s parallel with Authentic is more superficial than informative.

Let’s stipulate that Life Is Good offers obvious points in common with 2020 Derby hero Authentic: both are highly regarded sons of Into Mischief, both won first out during Del Mar’s Bing Crosby season, and both made the Sham their next target.

Yet Life Is Good ran a lot better than Authentic did at Del Mar, giving the impression of a more mentally focused racing machine. Authentic broke awkwardly, recovered to stalk the pace, and drove clear on cue, but with his head a tad cocked as though he was still processing everything. That latent hint became a suddenly overt action in the Sham, where he showed a world of talent along with erratic tendencies. In contrast, Life Is Good blasted straight to the lead in his debut and won for fun under an armchair ride by Mike Smith. Indeed, Life Is Good telegraphed his interest in attacking the clubhouse turn on the gallop-out, but heeded Smith’s signal to throttle down.

On the other hand, Life Is Good showed such blazing speed that he could end up having more of a distance limitation than Authentic did. Since I foolishly clung to Authentic skepticism in 2020, you could well dismiss this as my being an incorrigible curmudgeon about Into Mischief’s influence. But I also don’t want to overcorrect in the opposite direction, and assume that Authentic gives a pass to other fast Into Mischief progeny. Life Is Good’s maternal half sends mixed messages, and I’d like to see more before jumping at the encouraging elements.

In any event, even that hypothetical won’t be tested until later on the trail. The Sham’s mile should be well within his compass.

2. Medina Spirit was bought by the same clocker as Princess Noor.

Not to push the “other Baffert” angle too far here, but Medina Spirit has an intriguing profile. He was bought by bloodstock agent-cum-private clocker Gary Young, who also purchased Princess Noor for the same Zedan Racing Stables. Medina Spirit went for a tiny fraction of her purchase price – $35,000 at the OBS July Sale. Young was seeing something others missed, or perhaps was more willing to take a chance on a light catalog page, after the colt sped 3 furlongs in :33 at the under tack show while looking pretty lackadaisical about it.

Medina Spirit is still the best-selling progeny of freshman sire Protonico, a beautifully bred Grade 2 winner but not exactly a fashionable stallion (with a $5,000 stud fee for 2021). Although Medina Spirit’s female line is threadbare until you get to fourth dam Scoop the Gold (dam of High Yield), there are a couple of major sires in those lean generations (Unbridled and Holy Bull), and a deep family underpinning it.

Medina Spirit again displayed easy-going speed in his 5 1/2-furlong premiere at Los Alamitos. Protonico did as well in his career debut sprinting, before making his near-millionaire career as a router. Medina Spirit’s future likewise lies around two turns, and he takes the blinkers off in an often key equipment change for Baffert.

3. Parnelli brings routing experience against a couple of high-profile rivals.

Normally when a juvenile has to adopt the “try, try again” motto to break his maiden in similar conditions, I harbor a suspicion when he steps up in class. But that rule of thumb doesn’t apply to Parnelli, partly because of the rivals who managed to outduel him in a pair of mile maidens, and partly due to the trip he got in both.

Drawn on the rail both Oct. 2 at Santa Anita and Nov. 1 at Del Mar, Parnelli had his hand forced to use his tactical speed and set the pace. Both times, the outside stalker got the better of him in a prolonged tussle with a big margin back to third. In the former, he yielded grudgingly to Hot Rod Charlie, next seen finishing second to presumptive champion Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), and in the latter, Parnelli succumbed to Baffert’s Spielberg, the Del Mar Futurity (G1) runner-up and American Pharoah (G1) third who just scraped home in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2).

Had the tactical situation been reversed in either of those maidens, it’s arguable that Parnelli might have been able to win. At last on Nov. 28 at Del Mar, Parnelli drew post 7, worked out a stalk-and-pounce trip, and romped. The irony is that he could have probably won that maiden regardless of tactics, since he didn’t need to improve and actually posted a lower Brisnet Speed rating (85) than his Spielberg maiden (90) over the same track and trip.

Parnelli, right in the middle here in post 3, projects another tracking trip. As a well-bred son of Quality Road trained by the ever-patient John Shirreffs, he has upside. The questions are how long it will take for him to reach that potential, and whether his maiden form looks better at the moment than it will over time.

4. Waspirant has questions to answer after the American Pharoah.

Shirreffs’ other runner, Waspirant, also has long-term prospects since his parents are Union Rags and Life Is Sweet, herself a past Shirreffs celebrity. Ready to start about a month earlier than Parnelli, Waspirant was a staying-on fourth in the key Dr. Schivel-Spielberg maiden before striking in his very first route attempt at Del Mar Aug. 29. He beat Ambivalent, who keeps trying stakes company as a maiden and recently finished third in the Bob Hope (G3).

Waspirant looked a touch green, possibly running in snatches, so it made sense to experiment in blinkers for the American Pharoah. Whether the headgear was counterproductive or merely ineffectual, he wound up a non-threatening fourth behind Got Her Number. More concerning, he was readily outmoved on either flank by runner-up Rombauer and third Spielberg.

It’s too soon to judge Waspirant harshly off that, especially since he hasn’t run since, and takes the blinkers off now. Still, with turf runners poaching the exacta in the American Pharoah, and Spielberg not the most consistent type, it didn’t strike me as a vintage edition.

5. Uncle Boogie benefited from the race shape in the Bob Hope.

Lagging well off a contested pace in the Bob Hope, Uncle Boogie kept on resolutely to finish a distant second to the 10-1 Red Flag. He passed a class test, having previously won a $32,000 maiden claimer and placed second in a starter/optional claimer. Yet the Bob Hope form is to be treated with caution, as the product in part of a pace collapse. Indeed, the form was turned upside down in the Los Alamitos Futurity, with Spielberg getting revenge on Red Flag.

Trainer Andrew Lerner notes that Uncle Boogie was farther back early in the Bob Hope due to a troubled start, so he should not find himself in that position here. Ironically, that might have worked to his benefit in the circumstances, or if not, it left enough room to suggest so. The Sham shapes up as a deeper race, as well as his first try around two turns. Although Uncle Boogie should cope with the distance as a son of Ride on Curlin, he’ll need to up his game.