Our TimeformUS Derby Prep series is back this year, providing in-depth analysis of all of the major prep races for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. We begin with the Grade 3 Sham on Saturday at Santa Anita, the first major California prep for the Run for the Roses.
Bob Baffert dominated the West Coast 2-year-old scene last season, so it should come as no surprise that he has two entrants in this race, including the headliner, Coliseum. The gray son of Tapit has been installed as the even-money favorite on the morning line off a blowout debut victory in November. He will face his first major class test as he steps up into stakes company and stretches out in distance for the first time.
The TimeformUS Pace Projector is predicting that Coliseum (#5) will not work out the same soft trip that he enjoyed in his debut, as a fast early pace is predicted to materialize. The speedy Savagery (#3) is projected to lead this field in the early stages as he adds blinkers back to his arsenal. Baffert’s other colt in the field, Much Better (#7), showed speed in his only dirt start, so he should also be forwardly placed from his outside post position, stalking along with Coliseum. The expected fast pace may set up the late run of the most accomplished closer in the field, Gunmetal Gray (#6).
Let’s go through the entire field:
#1, SUENO (20-1): This colt has steadily progressed since an inauspicious start to his career, failing to make an impact against maiden-claiming company. He won by open lengths at a massive price second time out, and then was laid up until December. He returned on the synthetic surface at Golden Gate, and passed his first two-turn test with flying colors. While he was not facing a particularly accomplished group that day, he gave the impression that he still is not a finished product. He pricked his ears forward when he made the lead and seemingly won with something left in the tank. This colt’s dam was a precocious router, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see him take yet another step forward in his second two-turn attempt. However, in a field of this caliber, a minor award appears to be his ceiling.
#2, GRAY MAGICIAN (4-1): This full brother to last year’s Robert B. Lewis winner Lombo broke his maiden in style at Del Mar in late November, romping to a near 10-length score in his first start at a route distance. While that victory might have seemed overdue to some, this colt was unfortunate to run into two well-meant Bob Baffert colts in his prior starts sprinting in September. He actually ran quite well on both of those occasions, earning speed figures that put him on par with other fringe players in this field. His most recent 104 TimeformUS Speed Figure matches that of favorite Coliseum, and the number certainly holds up to scrutiny. The question for Gray Magician is whether he can take another step forward in his debut against winners. As well as he ran last time, I’m still somewhat dubious that he can do better than rounding out the trifecta, and I feel that others figure to offer better value underneath.
#3, SAVAGERY (10-1): Gray Magician’s stablemate, he is the speedier half of this uncoupled entry, as the Pace Projector is predicting that he is fast enough to lead this field in the early going. He needed to be dropped in for a tag to break his maiden back in August, but that impressive win vaulted him directly into stakes company. He put forth two respectable showings around one turn before the wheels came off in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity last time. This colt appeared to be somewhat out of sorts in the run to the first turn that day as he bore out badly, causing a chain reaction. The distance concerns are obvious considering how readily he threw in the towel in the stretch, but perhaps he deserves another chance going this far as a son of route influence Bellamy Road. I don’t think there’s a significant disparity in talent between he and his stablemate, yet this colt is likely to go off at a more enticing price.
#4, EASY SHOT (30-1): This second Keith Desormeaux runner needed to be dropped in for a tag to break his maiden, and his pedigree does not inspire confidence that added distance will be the answer. He’s the outsider in this field.
#5, COLISEUM (1-1): There was plenty of hype around this colt prior to his debut, and the public responded accordingly, betting him down to 1-2 favoritism. He did not disappoint, leading every step of the way while never asked for a serious effort by Joe Talamo. His final time seemed impressive at first glance, but the overall quality of the field he defeated remains unclear. The 104 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he was assigned is solid but not exceptional among this field. Notably, the runner-up returned to lose at short odds next time, earning a significantly slower number in a disappointing fifth-place finish.
Coliseum faces a number of fresh obstacles on Saturday, as he will be asked to make his first start around two turns and he may have to rate off another horse for the first time. While his pedigree is not necessarily geared toward classic distances, he should have enough stamina to stay a mile. I’m more concerned about the prospect of him having to stalk rivals, since he appears to be somewhat headstrong. Bob Baffert has enjoyed a fantastic season with this current crop of 3-year-olds, but we need to be aware that his horses often get overbet in these situations. Over the past 5 years, Baffert is 7 for 27 (26 percent, $0.97 ROI) with first-out winners making their second starts in graded stakes company on dirt. These impressive debut winners just do not win at a high enough rate to justify the overwhelming support they receive in the wagering. Coliseum is likely going to be a prohibitive public choice in this race, and I think he faces a serious rival in the colt posted just to his outside.
#6, GUNMETAL GRAY (5-2): Stamina is not an issue for this colt. If anything, the one-mile distance may be shorter than his ideal trip. After impressively breaking his maiden in fast time at Del Mar in August, he was thrown directly into Grade 1 company. He was no match for likely 2-year-old champion Game Winner in either of his last two starts, but I thought he nevertheless put forth encouraging efforts. He stayed on well to be second in the American Pharoah, earning a 113 TimeformUS Speed Figure – easily the highest number in this field. While some may have been disappointed by his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile performance, he did not have the smoothest trip that day. He was taken far back off the early pace, and Flavien Prat seemed to have a difficult time working him into the clear around the far turn. He was still next-to-last turning into the stretch, and actually did well to pass over half the field in the final quarter mile.
Unlike his main rival Coliseum, Gunmetal Gray has already proven his class against some of the best 2-year-olds in the country while earning superior speed figures. He’s shown plenty of versatility in his races, so he should work out a favorable trip given the expected fast pace. It’s also a great sign to see top rider Mike Smith accept the riding assignment in hopes of securing a Derby mount. In my opinion, he’s the most likely winner of this race and he’s unlikely to be favored. That’s the definition of value. The selection.
#7, MUCH BETTER (6-1): I found it somewhat curious that Bob Baffert switched this horse to turf immediately after he won his dirt debut. While Pioneerof the Nile is a decent grass influence, this is really more of a dirt pedigree overall. His dam was an accomplished graded stakes-winning sprinter, and he gets some stamina from his sire. While he handled turf reasonably well in his initial start over it, he didn’t appear to possess the turn of foot that is necessary to achieve success on that surface. He just appeared to be one-paced throughout, as he never picked up once he made the lead at the quarter pole. I’m somewhat intrigued by the return to dirt, but I’m concerned that he may just not be fast enough to compete with the top contenders here. This is a pivotal race for an expensive colt who is still searching for an identity.
The two main contenders are clearly Coliseum (#5) and Gunmetal Gray (#6). Given the fact that the latter is likely to be a better price, he is my top selection. The 5-2 morning line seems awfully generous, so I would bet him to win at anything over odds of 8-5.
Exacta: 6 with 2,3,5,7
Trifecta: 6 with 5 with 1,2,3,7
Trifecta: 6 with 1,2,3,7 with 5