The California 3-year-olds have dominated the last few Triple Crown cycles, and there are certainly some talented runners out there in this year’s crop, with Game Winner and Improbable waiting in the wings. Unfortunately, the top-tier horses are not participating in the early-season prep races. January’s Sham Stakes was fairly light in the talent department, and there is once again very little depth to this second stepping-stone on the Derby trail, the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Sham winner Gunmetal Gray is back in the mix, but he’s hardly a formidable presence. The horse to beat and likely favorite appears to be Los Alamitos Futurity runner-up Mucho Gusto.
It is that Bob Baffert trainee who is predicted to lead this field through the early stages. While the Pace Projector is not predicting a situation that favors a particular running style, Mucho Gusto (#5) does his best work when able to secure the early lead, and he is unlikely to face any early challenges for that position. Gunmetal Gray (#4) could be hindered by this pace scenario, since he took advantage of a contested pace to win the Sham, and he will not get that same set of dynamics in this spot.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, KID CANTINA (20-1): This one is hard to recommend. He broke his maiden in his only start around two turns, but that came in a woefully slow race at Golden Gate. He hasn’t gotten much faster in two subsequent dirt sprints and appears to be overmatched. Pass.
#2, MAGNIFICENT McCOOL (8-1): At first glance, it appears that his dirt efforts make him somewhat competitive with this field. After all, he’s earned TimeformUS Speed Figures of 102 and 99 on the main track, which compare favorably to Gunmetal Gray’s winning figure in the Sham. However, I think it’s necessary to dig into his form lines a bit. He was trounced by Dueling on Sept. 28, and then by Extra Hope on Oct. 21. Both of those horses returned to contest the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, in which they finished third and fifth, respectively 3 and 6 3/4 lengths behind today’s rival Mucho Gusto. I do think Magnificent McCool has some ability, but he’s probably going to be most successful on turf moving forward. He looked like a completely different horse when he stepped on grass last time, as he powerfully spurted away from a decent field through the lane. That sudden shift should come as no surprise, given that his dam side pedigree is full of turf influences. He’s a horse worth following, but this is the wrong surface. A minor award is the ceiling.
#3, EASY SHOT (8-1): He actually ran quite well in the Sham, especially considering that it was his first attempt around two turns and he was dismissed at 87-1. If not for some traffic trouble in deep stretch that robbed him of his momentum, he probably would have finished second or third. However, that encouraging result speaks more to the overall quality – or lack thereof – of that Sham field than it does to this horse’s ability. His late run was a bit of an optical illusion, as that race completely fell apart in the final eighth of a mile. While he did improve his speed figure, he still has to take another significant step forward to win this race. A fringe player.
#4, GUNMETAL GRAY (9-5): I still cannot comprehend how this colt paid $9.40 to win in the Sham given his considerable class edge over that field. Even though he got the job done, his overall performance left me somewhat disappointed. That race was served up on a silver platter to a closer like Gunmetal Gray. His main rival Coliseum blew the start and lost all chance, while the early leaders were all exposed as having serious distance limitations once they turned into the lane. Furthermore, TimeformUS PPs indicate that the Santa Anita main track was strongly favoring closers that afternoon, indicated by the dark blue color-coded Race Rating. Given that set of circumstances, Gunmetal Gray was supposed to inhale that field and draw off in a facile score. Instead, he was still last at the top of the stretch and was fully extended to forge past the longshot runner-up in a desperate finish. If he merely repeats that performance, I don’t see how he can beat a legitimately talented foe like Mucho Gusto. If you’re taking an optimistic view, it’s possible that Gunmetal Gray needed that first start back off a two-month break. He did earn much faster speed figures when initially stretched out around two turns as a juvenile, so there is some hope that he can get back to those efforts. If he is as short as his 9-5 morning line price, I want no part of him. Last time was the time.
#5, MUCHO GUSTO (8-5): It almost seems too obvious. How is this colt going to lose this race? This race lacks a true speed rival to keep him honest in the early going, and he’s earned speed figures that suggest he is simply faster than this group. Frankly, his 8-5 morning line price would be a gift, though I suspect he’ll drift down to odds-on territory by post time. Mucho Gusto is fast horse who initially gave me the impression that he was more of a sprinter. However, it’s hard to argue with the race that he ran in the Los Alamitos Futurity last time, in which he earned a field-best 112 TimeformUS Speed Figure. He did avoid the clubhouse turn trouble that plagued some rivals in that race, but he nevertheless laid down honest fractions and gamely kicked for home. He seems like a horse that responds well to challenges, as he appeared to be in deep water at the top of the stretch in each of his last two starts, yet was able to find another gear once rivals ranged up outside of him. The only knock against him is the fact that the Bob Baffert barn has been enduring an uncharacteristic slump through the beginning of this Santa Anita meet, winning at a paltry 14 percent clip. I suppose that may be reason enough for some to doubt this colt, but I’m not wavering. If he shows up and works out the right trip, they will not beat him. A very likely winner.
#6, NOLO CONTESTO (5-2): It was nice to see him take a step forward on the stretch-out. Omaha Beach, the runner-up in his maiden victory, is a highly regarded colt who has consistently earned respectable speed figures, making him a decent gauge of this one’s ability. While his dam was more of a sprinter herself, this ridgling appears to have inherited some of the stamina of his sire. On the other hand, he did have some circumstances in his favor when he achieved that victory last time. The early pace was slow, indicated by blue color-coded pace figures, and he took advantage of a speed-favoring surface. He’s stepping up in class this time, but John Sadler actually has strong numbers in this situation. Over the past five years, he is 10 for 42 (24 percent, $2.59 ROI) with 3-year-olds coming off maiden wins on the dirt. If Gunmetal Gray fails to rebound with a better effort, it’s possible that he could sneak into the exacta behind the favorite. Possible for a piece.
The morning line makes it seem like this race is somewhat competitive. I believe that Mucho Gusto (#5) is going to be a heavy favorite, and he deserves to be so. For me, it’s just that simple. Perhaps likely third choice Nolo Contesto hangs for second, but I don’t have a particularly clever take on this race, at least from a value perspective.
Exacta: 5 with 4,6
Trifecta: 5 with 6 with 2,3,4