Goldencents winning the Sham (G3). Photo courtesy of Benoit & Associates.
One first Saturday down, four to go.
As much as May 4 may seem as distant as the next Santa Claus sighting, there was indeed some traffic this weekend on the long and winding road that will lead to Churchill Downs on the famed first Saturday in May.
New York and California were the venues for Kentucky Derby prep races that were won by heavy favorites and actually produced a new leader in the point system that will ultimately determine the field for the Run for the Roses.
Specifically, it was the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita and the Jerome at Aqueduct which ignited the year’s first few first sparks of interest that before long will erupt into full-blown cases of Derby Fever.
Of the two races, the Sham, named for Secretariat’s arch-rival in the 1973 Triple Crown, seems destined to produce the Derby hopeful who might stay in the headlines the longest. In capturing the Sham by 1 ½ lengths, Goldencents ran his record to three wins in four starts and extended his sharp form into his 3-year-old season.
Admittedly, there wasn’t much behind the odds-on, 2-5 favorite at the finish line. Den’s Legacy, the runner-up, was the only other stakes winner in a field of six – and that added-money win came on turf. His best dirt effort was a third behind Violence in last year’s Cash Call Futurity.
Yet, even though Derby is still four months away, there’s a lot to like about Goldencents and his chances of being a major player in the classics.
Saturday’s win gave Goldencents back-to-back wins in Grade 3 stakes, coming on the heels of his 1 ¾-length victory in the Delta Downs Jackpot, a $1 million race. His lone setback was a five-length loss in the Hopeful to Shanghai Bobby, who will be named the champion 2-year-old later this month. So that’s no disgrace.
The main question about Goldencents is whether his sharp early speed will hold up over a classic distance. The Jackpot, at a mile-and-a-sixteenth, is his longest race to date, leaving him an extra furlong and a half to handle when the first Saturday in May finally rolls around. On the bright side, in the mile-long Sham he showed a willingness to prompt the pace of Den’s Legacy after leading in the opening stages of his first three races.
Teaching him to relax enough to handle a mile and a quarter will be a demanding task over the course of the next four months, but at least he has the services of someone who knows how to win a Triple Crown race or two.
Doug O’Neill, who guided I’ll Have Another to wins in last year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness, trains Goldencents and is already experiencing some déjà vu.
“Having a (Kentucky) Derby contender is such an exciting thing. This horse is such a brilliant athlete and so amazing mentally. He’s just getting better every day,” O’Neill said after the Sham. “The whole crew, like I said earlier, has a little swag after I’ll Have Another, so we’re just enjoying the whole ride.”
Adding to the buzz for son of Into Mischief, one of his owners is Louisville men’s basketball coach Rick Pitino and his jockey, Kevin Krigger, is just one of a handful of black riders at a major circuit.
Meanwhile, in New York, Vyjack tried two turns for the first time and registered a gutsy head victory in the Grade 2 $200,000 Jerome at a mile and 70 yards. His competition, despite a longer and richer race, was just as suspect as Goldencents’. The runner-up was 41-1 shot Siete de Oros, who broke his maiden in a $40,000 claimer at Parx in October and was third in a stakes at the Pennsylvania track in his last start.
Now 3-fo-3, Vyjack topped out at seven furlongs in his first two starts and may not race again until the March 2 Gotham, which could complicate his Derby itinerary. Though a Grade 2 stakes, the Jerome was not included in the Road to the Kentucky Derby point series because it was switched from the fall to early January after the new format was announced.
That leaves Vyjack with no points and enhances the importance of the Gotham, which awards 50 points to its winner, and the Wood, an April 6 stakes worth 100 points to the winner.
VYJACK PUT IN A GUTSY PERFORMANCE TO BEAT SIETE DE OROS IN THE JEROME
Photo courtesy Adam Coglianese/NYRA
Goldencents is much better positioned in the point standings but is hardly a lock to qualify for a spot in the Derby. The Sham added $60,000 to Goldencents’ graded stakes earnings, pushing his lifetime total to $680,000. A year ago that total would have been enough to wrap up a spot in the Kentucky Derby field. Instead, under the new format, Goldencents finds himself leading a points race that figures to undergo severe change in the coming weeks and months.
Thanks to 10 points for a win in the Grade 3 Sham, Goldencents now has 24 points and moved in front of Shanghai Bobby who only has 20 points.
Yet 24 points is hardly a huge head-start as in the months ahead eight Derby preps will offer 50 points to the winner and 20 to the runner-up and seven more after that will award 100 points for first and 40 for second.
Due to the new format, the Derby field is still shrouded in mystery as the new year begins. It will take some time, but we’ll know more as the months pass and we’ll find out how some promising 2-year-olds handle the adjustment to life at three.
One first Saturday down, four to go.
And what are your thoughts? Did we see a bona fide Kentucky Derby prospect in the Sham or Jerome?