The long road to the 2018 Kentucky Derby begins with Saturday’s Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita, the first graded stakes race for three-year-olds this season. Seventeen qualifying points are on the line (10 for first, 4 for second, 2 for third, and 1 for fourth).
Only one of the runners in this race, McKinzie, has thus far acquired any points towards a potential start on the first Saturday in May. He did so when finishing second – but ultimately getting promoted to victory – in December’s Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity. He comes into this race as the overwhelming favorite off the strength of that performance.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, due in large part to the presence of a few sprinters stretching out in distance for the first time. The very fast Mourinho (#4), owner of a massive 133 Early Pace Rating, is predicted to lead the way through the opening furlongs. Yet fellow front-runners All Out Blitz and Shivermetimbers should be chasing him in earnest through swift fractions. Favored McKinzie (#6) certainly is not slow himself, but he should find himself in a stalking position as Bob Baffert removes the blinkers he’s worn in past starts.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, MY BOY JACK (12-1): If you’re looking for a capable closer in a race loaded with early speed types, this Creative Cause colt is probably your best option. The most experienced member of the field really came to hand during the latter part of his two-year-old season. He scored a stakes victory in the Zuma Beach before getting sent postward at 11-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He was not so fortunate on the big day in early November, as he drew a terribly wide post position and was unable to save ground around either turn. He briefly loomed at the top of the stretch before the ground loss took its toll in the late stages.
With limited turf opportunities at this time of year, who can blame his connections for taking a shot on dirt in a Derby prep? After all, his only main track start came in a five-furlong race back in June, so he has a right to do much better than that given his body of work since then. While Creative Cause’s progeny do seem to have a preference for turf, there is some dirt pedigree in My Boy Jack’s female family. His dam is by dirt influence Mineshaft and is out of a mare that placed in the Grade 1 Coaching Club American Oaks. Generally, I’m not inclined to take horses in this situation, as they’re likely to get off the strength of their turf races. That said, the race flow does favor him and I would not be surprised to see him picking up pieces late.
#2, HERE IS HAPPY (20-1): This closing sprinter took advantage of a wicked early pace when finishing third in the Speakeasy two back. He’s never run fast enough to be considered a serious threat here, and the stretch-out does not necessarily aid his chances.
#3, ALL OUT BLITZ (10-1): The Kaleen Shah homebred is one of the major place players in this race. He’s shown ability in all three of his starts against maidens, but it’s his last effort that suggests he’s ready to make this jump into stakes company. Chasing a solid early pace, he put away a stubborn early leader in mid-stretch and gamely held off the fast-closing runner-up. That race came up quite fast, earning an 87 Beyer Speed Figure and a 112 TimeformUS Speed Figure. If he were to transfer that form to this one-mile distance, he might have a say in the outcome. However, it seems unlikely that he possesses such versatility given his pedigree. His dam raced just twice, winning two sprints, and her dam was the talented Grade 1-winning sprinter Leave Me Alone. There’s more speed than stamina in his female family and the presence of Mourinho just to his outside makes his task rather complicated.
#4, MOURINHO (4-1): Baffert’s second-string runner is no slouch. He burst onto the scene with an impressive debut score over a couple of talented colts back in September. While he lost his next race, the Speakeasy, as the heavy 3-10 favorite, the performance is better than it seems. He got involved in a torrid early duel through very fast early fractions (color-coded red in TimeformUS PPs), and put away his pace foes before just getting run down by a closer in the late stages. He showed a new dimension last time in the Bob Hope, rating behind the early leader before chasing that runner home through the lane. The winner of that race, Greyvitos, returned to take Remington Park’s Springboard Mile in his next start, so it seems that there was some quality to that event.
The major question for Mourinho is not one of ability – it’s the distance. He’s displayed blazing early speed in his races and does not exactly give the impression that he’s asking for added ground. His pedigree yields few clues, since his dam was primarily a turf horse that won going both short and long. It’s somewhat curious that Bob Baffert is adding blinkers for this race, a seemingly counterintuitive move for a horse that will need to relax early. If there’s a runner in this race that can upset the favorite, it’s more likely to be the colt posted just to his outside.
#5, SHIVERMETIMBERS (7-2): I really like the progression of this colt’s career thus far. He was away from the gate a bit slowly in his debut, but did well to rally through traffic and get up for third despite not being asked for his best through the lane. He unveiled a new set of tactics in his second start, contesting the early pace before yielding to today’s rival McKinzie in the lane. He was then given the chance to stretch out in distance in his third start, and he responded willingly. Again sent hard to establish early position heading into the first turn, he set a strong pace and gamely held off a relentless challenge from the runner-up, Peace, in the stretch. The pair of them earned respectable speed figures and that rival returned to win his next start.
With the two speedy rivals drawn just to his inside this time, I would imagine that Flavien Prat will not be in such a hurry through the opening furlongs of this contest. Shivermetimbers showed the capacity to rate in his debut, and it would make sense for him to revert to similar tactics here. Based on the progression through his first three starts, it seems entirely plausible that this colt could ascend to McKinzie’s level if he were to take another step forward here. He’s the main threat.
#6, MCKINZIE (3-5): This colt has done nothing wrong in his brief career. His debut victory was simply dazzling, as he raced wide throughout and easily drew off from his competition despite racing greenly through the final couple of furlongs. The 99 Beyer and 118 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he registered for the effort clearly indicated that he might be one of the fastest horses of his generation. Justifiably bet down to favoritism in the Los Alamitos Futurity next time out, he hardly disgraced himself in defeat. He raced keenly down the backstretch and may have moved to the lead too soon around the far turn. He briefly appeared to be stopping in the stretch, but gamely battled back to finish second to stablemate Solomini.
That dirt route experience gives him a leg up on many of his rivals in this race, solidifying his status as a deserving favorite. Bob Baffert now removes the blinkers that he’s worn for both of his prior starts in an effort to get him to relax in the early part of this test. It’s something that Baffert has not done often. Over the past five years, he is just 4 for 15 (with a moderately negative $1.40 ROI) when removing blinkers in graded stakes races. Given the early speed of his rivals, McKinzie may have to rate behind horses and take some dirt in his face for the first time. Ultimately, it may not matter since he has shown himself to be the most talented runner in this bunch.
#7, CITY PLAN (20-1): He’s yet to record a particularly competitive speed figure, and he was trounced by top two-year-olds Bolt d’Oro and Solomini when making his only prior foray into graded stakes company. He could potentially pick up some pieces if the race falls apart late.
McKinzie is the most likely winner, but I’m not one to endorse betting 3-5 shots. The only horse with a reasonable chance to beat him is Shivermetimbers (#5), who would offer value at anything above his morning line price of 7-2. I’ll take a small shot with him in an attempt to beat the heavily-bet favorite.
Exacta Box: 5,6