The southern California road to the Kentucky Derby continues Saturday with the Grade 3, $150,000 Robert B. Lewis over 1 1/16 miles at Santa Ania. The high-profile 3-year-olds stabled out West, including Bolt d’Oro, Solomini, and McKinzie, are all bypassing this race for targets later in the spring. Therefore, we’re left with a field composed of nine horses with nothing more than a maiden victory on their résumés – and two runners in this field have yet to even accomplish that.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which should be set by Lombo (#4), who comes off a win sprinting last time out. He will likely be chased by stalkers such as Shivermetimbers (#5) and Regulate (#8). Late-running types such as Ayacara (#1) and Pepe Tono (#2) figure to benefit from especially swift early fractions.
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, AYACARA (8-1): This Violence colt improved significantly when stretched out in distance in his second start, but was then thrown to the wolves against Bolt d’Oro and Solomini in the Grade 1 Frontrunner. Considering the step up in class, he actually did well to close for fourth that day and was finishing with interest in a race where most were losing tons of ground at the end. The 110 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned for that performance is one of the highest dirt numbers in the field, so he merits respect off the strength of that effort.
Since then, Ayacara has run only on turf and synthetic with mixed results. He went down to defeat as the 9-10 choice two back at Golden Gate before failing to make a dent on grass last time. I think he’s now getting back to the right surface and the prospect of a hot early pace will suit him. Keith Desormaux adds blinkers for good measure. He’s one of the top contenders and would be a great bet at anything close to his morning line price of 8-1.
#2, PEPE TONO (6-1): Like Ayacara, his closing running style fits the projected race flow. In fact, this 114 TimeformUS Late Pace Rating is the highest in the field, indicating that he may benefit most from especially quick early fractions. My main issue with him is that I’m unsure about the quality of the field he beat last time. Whereas Ayacara overcame a moderate pace when he made his late run in the Frontrunner, Pepe Tono got a fantastic pace setup when breaking his maiden last time. The pace figures at every call of that race are color-coded red, indicating that the pace was extremely fast. Indeed, the race fell apart in the late stages as closers dominated. Pepe Tono did earn a reasonably competitive speed figure that day, but he’s now stepping up to face a tougher field and he’s unlikely to receive as favorable a setup as he did last time. I don’t think he offers sufficient value at his 6-1 morning line odds.
#3, DARK VADER (10-1): This runner is difficult to judge. He showed promise in his career debut, but it took him three starts and a return to Los Alamitos to get back to that effort. He’s only run competitively at that venue, and the speed figure of his last race seems slightly higher than you might expect it to be given the relatively weak competition. This seems like a tall order for this horse.
#4, LOMBO (5-1): He earned a competitive speed figure when breaking his maiden going 6 1/2 furlongs last time. However, he’s never raced farther than that distance, and now must try to stretch out his speed around two turns while dealing with a pace scenario that is predicted to be unfavorable to a horse with his running style. It’s not as if there’s a ton of stamina in his pedigree. I prefer others.
#5, SHIVERMETIMBERS (7-2): Let’s not sugarcoat it: This horse was a disappointment in the Sham. He looked like a runner that was ready to make that jump into stakes company off a series of encouraging performances against maidens – all of which earned strong speed figures. However, instead of continuing that forward progression, he took a step in the wrong direction.
Yet, everything is relative in horse racing, and it cannot be overstated that Shivermetimbers is taking a significant drop in class today. There are certainly no runners of the caliber of top 3-year-old McKinzie in this race, and even fellow Sham rivals All Out Blitz and My Boy Jack would be top contenders – if not outright favorites – if they had returned in this spot. Shivermetimbers finished behind those rivals, but it’s not as if he completely caved in. He’s versatile enough to sit a decent stalking trip if a horse like Lombo decides to go too fast early. He might not be a horse that’s cut out to make it to the Kentucky Derby, but that doesn’t mean that he isn’t the right horse in this specific race. In fact, I believe he’s the horse to beat.
#6, INSCOM (6-1): In terms of overall ability, this might be one of the most talented horses in the race. However, he’s shown that talent on the turf and is basically an unknown quantity on the dirt. His lone main track start came at Los Alamitos in his debut back in September, and it was a disaster in every sense. He broke very slowly before rushing up into contention and become extremely rank. He had to steady off horses’ heels and was eventually guided into the clear before steadily backing up. It’s hard to draw too many conclusions from such an odd effort. He’s clearly improved since, but I’m dubious that he can translate that encouraging turf form to dirt. While he’s by versatile sire Distorted Humor, his female family is strongly geared toward turf ability. After all, his best half-sibling is Grade 1 winning turfer Lochte. He’s going to take money off his grass performances, and I think it’s wise to look elsewhere for value.
#7, PEACE (3-1): If you like Shivermetimbers in this race, I think you have to give a serious look to this Richard Mandella trainee. He finished just a head behind that runner two back and returned to register a workmanlike maiden win in late December. This runner has a ton of stamina in his female family. His dam herself was a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles and was even stakes-placed going as far as 10 furlongs in the Ladies Handicap. She has produced route winner Lunar Rover among this horse’s half-siblings.
Peace now attempts to step up in class off a series of maiden races, just as Shivermetimbers was seeking to do last time out in the Sham. The difference is that Peace catches an especially weak group of runners in what is essentially a glorified N1X allowance race. I believe he’s one of the top contenders here, but it is worth noting that Richard Mandella has had little success with last-out maiden winners. Over the past five years, he is just 7 for 50 (14 percent, $1.12 ROI) with horses that won their maidens last time out. Nevertheless, Peace is a runner that I will include on my tickets.
#8, REGULATE (8-1): It’s a little curious that Bob Baffert elects to run this maiden in a graded stakes race off a poor performance as the favorite last time out. He did have an excuse that day, as he was chasing a fast pace while racing wide around both turns. That said, he was supposed to have more of an answer for the closers considering the inferior competition. He hails from a Juddmonte family that has produced some dirt runners, including $800,000 Honorable Duty. I’m not entirely against him, but the projected pace scenario indicates that he may have his work cut out for him.
#9, BLAME THE RIDER (15-1): Like winner Pepe Tono, he took advantage of a fast pace last time, and his prior efforts are not nearly strong enough. He’s the outsider in this field.
The main players appear to be Ayacara (#1), Shivermetimbers (#5), and Peace (#7). Of that trio, Ayacara is likely to go off at the highest price and he should sit a good trip rating off an honest pace. At anything close to his morning-line odds, he’s a fantastic bet, but I’d even be willing to take a shot with him if he drifted as low as 9-2.
Exacta Key Box: 1 with 2,5,7
Trifecta: 1 with 5,7 with 2,5,7,8