The Grade 1, $1,000,000 Santa Anita Derby has a field of 10 horses going a mile and 1/8 on the main track. The field is led by Bob Baffert’s Mor Spirit and Cliff Sise’s Danzing Candy, with Exaggerator the only other entrant who is single-digits on the morning line.
At time of writing, it is raining in Southern California, and the forecast is for more rain—right through to Sunday.
According to the TimeformUS Pace Projector, the early leaders in the Santa Anita Derby will be Danzing Candy and Iron Rob. They are followed by Uncle Lino, Denman’s Call, and Smokey Image.
The fastest TimeformUS Late Pace rating in the field belongs to Mor Spirit.
Here is the field in post position order, with morning line odds in parentheses:
Denman’s Call (15-1): Son of Northern Afleet tries his first route today. He enters off a disappointing second-place finish, at 2-5, to Iron Rob in the 6F San Pedro, which itself was a cutback in distance for him. His speed figures are a couple of cuts below the best of these. He’ll almost certainly need a big new top to take this. While we can find something to admire in Doug O’Neill’s moxie (he likes having his horses “out there” in big races), we have a hard time seeing this experiment working well enough.
He is 3 for 8 lifetime. All three wins came in close finishes. One came by a neck. One came by a nose. He has won two graded stakes. He has won over a million dollars. Three of his losses came to Nyquist. One came to Danzing Candy. One came to Brody’s Cause, who looks to be a strong contender in the Blue Grass today. So why does one hear disparaging talk about how Exaggerator finishes races? To us, his main problem is that on five occasions he landed in races where he was not the best horse on the day. And we do not believe he is the best horse in this field, either. But he fits on speed figures and class and he is proven in the mud and we do not expect him to have trouble with the distance. He did come up empty at the end of the San Felipe, but we see that as having been the price he paid for the impressive move he made earlier in the race. In total, we believe that Exaggerator will need a couple of things to go his way for him to beat Danzing Candy and Mor Spirit, since we believe they are slightly more talented than he, but if the odds are there, we’ll take the chance that he will receive a couple of nice breaks today.
Danzing Candy (9-5):
Toss his debut, in which he had early trouble, and we are left with a gorgeous string of races. Wins in a MSW, a NWX, and a Grade 2. Wins at 7F, 8F, and 8.5F. All wire to wire. Speed figures of 105, 103, and a field-best 115. This Twirling Candy colt could hardly have looked more sturdy in the stretch of the San Felipe, as he dispensed with Exaggerator and then easily held off a half-hearted run from Mor Spirit. OK, what will change today? The extra 1/16th of a mile does not look to be a significant hurdle. A wet track would provide a new test for him, but his wet-track Breeding Rating is 14 points higher than his dirt Breeding Rating. To us, the biggest question mark attached to Danzing Candy concerns pace. What happens if the quick sprinter Iron Rob busts out of the gate and tries to take the track away from Danzing Candy? If we trained Iron Rob, that would certainly be our strategy. All of Danzing Candy’s best running has been done on the lead. Can he handle a challenging pace? It is very likely that he can. After all, he is a quality horse, and quality horses handle things. But Danzing Candy will be a relatively short price, and stacking a pace question on top of a muddy-track question leaves us disinclined to take a short price on him today.
Mor Spirit (8-5):
Honest as they come, a Grade 1 winner, proven in the slop, essentially devoid of distance questions, and trained and ridden by men who are unsurpassed in this sort of situation, Mor Spirit is a deserving favorite in the Santa Anita Derby. Dancing Candy deserved his victory in the San Felipe, and then some. His was a powerful performance. But Mor Spirit’s preparation for the race was imperfect, and he received a deceptively annoying trip in the race itself. He was bothered on the first turn, and he didn’t seem that happy about it. Indeed, he seemed to display his displeasure with his head movements, and even for a horse who is a bit of a grinder, he seemed uncharacteristically sluggish early. If Danzing Candy avoids a speed duel today, we expect that Mor Spirit will need his lifetime-best to take this race. But we also believe that there is an excellent chance that Bob Baffert has him sitting on just such a performance. So in a close call, we will call Mor Spirit the most likely winner. Unfortunately, the tote board seems likely to come to a similar conclusion.
Smokey Image (15-1): Carla Gaines Cal-bred was 6 for 6 lifetime going into the San Felipe. He was fresh off a giant lifetime-top speed figure of 111, and the visual impression he had made in some of his races was sparkling. Expectations were high. He went off at 3-1. Then he ran as if he were 50-1. If we were putting together a case for him today, we would build it on the fact that his San Felipe was just a random off effort. Quality horses rebound from these. But we find it very hard to look past the fact that he has run only one speed figure that could threaten these, and he ran it while controlling the pace—something that is extremely unlikely to happen today. We are looking elsewhere.
Iron Rob (12-1): The most heavily raced horse in the field, 9 of his 10 starts have come in races at 6.5F or shorter. Earned a lifetime-top speed figure of 110 while beating Denman’s Call in front-running fashion in the 6F San Pedro three weeks ago. His route breeding is adequate, and his lone route try can be ignored because it came on grass. What we can’t ignore is that he has the speedy and hyper-talented Danzing Candy to his inside. Already shaky on the distance question, Iron Rob figures to have a trying trip today if Danzing Candy gets out of the gate. Making the lead could come at a prohibitive cost. And even if we pencil in a dream scenario for Iron Rob (lonely lead on a moderate pace), we still have a hard time seeing him holding off these opponents for 9F.
Dressed in Hermes (15-1): Is reportedly using this race as a “prep” for a Derby Day grass start at Churchill, whatever that means. Indeed, we’re not sure it means anything at all. To us this is just a standard shoot-at-the-moon “prep,” with a “wrong surface” excuse already in the oven. In any case, Janet Armstrong is a good trainer, and this is a nice gelding, but he was no match for Mor Spirit in the RB Lewis, and at this point we want to see him back on grass.
Rare Candy (30-1): First-time gelding has had no success in graded stakes and has been unable to break through his first allowance condition. Watching Joe Talamo repeatedly employing his patented “haymaker” whipping style on him the other day, as he was losing to the unimposing Mishegas, did little to lessen our pessimism.
Improved as soon as he got off real dirt, and has never run fast enough to threaten these. Still eligible for a NW of 2, his presence here can be seen as rather odd. In his favor, however, we will put the fact that trainer Richard Baltas is extremely astute, gets an 88 rating going synthetic to dirt, and has apparently seen recent signs that this colt is about to come into his own. Diplodocus would need a giant jump to contend in here, but we could see including him underneath in trifectas and superfectas if, as should be the case, his price is truly huge.
Uncle Lino (20-1): He worked his way up to a 106 in the RB Lewis, which he earned while finishing second to Mor Spirit. Then he went backwards in the San Felipe while losing to Danzing Candy by 10 lengths. Gary Sherlock removes the blinkers today, but Uncle Lino would seem to need more help than that.
We see Mor Spirit as the most likely winner, but at odds too short for us to stomach. If we can get something like 9-2 or higher on Exaggerator, we will make him our win bet. And if we can get monstrous odds on Diplodocus (how can we not?), we will find a way to sprinkle him underneath in trifectas and superfectas.