The sixth running of the Grade 2, $200,000 Twilight Derby on Saturday at Santa Anita Park is a wide-open event with a field of 11, five of whom are traveling from the East Coast or Midwest for this 3-year-old-only stakes race. Three of the 11 enter the Twilight Derby off stakes wins on grass. That group is led by Grade 2 Del Mar Derby winner Sharp Samurai, who also captured the Grade 2 La Jolla Handicap and is going for his fourth straight win. Just Howard is on an even bigger winning streak, having won four in a row, including the Grade 3 Commonwealth Derby presented by the Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia HBPA in his most recent race. Cowboy Culture ships in from Kentucky by way of Indiana, having won the Centaur Stakes last month. Big Score is another notable contender, having finished just a half-length behind Sharp Samurai in the Del Mar Derby. Bowies Hero finished third in the Del Mar Derby and won the Oceanside Stakes prior to that, so he is another horse that fits with the main contenders in the field. Other notable stakes-level competitors might be Profiteer, who finished third in the Commonwealth Derby, and Channel Maker, winner of the Breeders’ Stakes in August. Troublewithatee has yet to run in a stakes race but has won two in a row, the most recent at the distance of the Twilight Derby. The rest of the field consists of Ann Arbor Eddie, Cistron, and Dangerfield.
Just Howard ran just OK in three grass races that were part of the first five starts of his career but then his form turned a corner when blinkers were added for his May race, which he won going away. Following that, Just Howard won three straight stakes races. Within that four-race winning streak, Just Howard improved from a 106 Equibase Speed Figure when winning the Find Stakes in August to a new career-best 109 figure when victorious in the Commonwealth Derby in September. Both races were at the same 1 1/8-mile distance of the Twilight Derby. Not only is Just Howard a perfect 4-for-4 since blinkers were added, he possesses the best last-race Equibase figure in the field (109), and jockey Feargal Lynch comes in from the east to ride, just as he did last month. Trainer Graham Motion doesn’t ship out to California very often over the last five years, but when he does STATS Race Lens statistics tells us his record is 8-for-49 with a +26 percent profit on win bets. As such, Just Howard has a fine chance to win his fifth race in a row.
Bowies Hero won the Singletary Stakes on turf in May, his first start of 2017 following six months off. Two races later, he took the Oceanside Stakes on opening day of the Del Mar summer meeting in July. In the Oceanside, Bowies Hero earned a career-best 108 figure. Rested six weeks, Bowies Hero returned in the Del Mar Derby last month and was rallying nicely from sixth to fourth entering the stretch, less than a length from the leader, when his jockey dropped the whip. Still, under his own courage, Bowies Hero finished third, just a half-length from runner-up Big Score and arguably he might have won the race if not for that issue. Jockey Kent Desormeaux gets aboard for the first time, and a powerful STATS Race Lens angle emerges because wagering to win every time there is a jockey change to Desormeaux in the past 12 months has results in a strong 30-percent profit. That statistic is not based on a small sample size as there were 282 occasions when there was a jockey change to Desormeaux, and he won 20 percent (56) of those races. With that in mind, Bowies Hero can not only turn the tables on the two horses who finished in front of him in the Del Mar Derby, Sharp Samurai and Big Score, he has a decent shot to win this race.
Profiteer ships in from New York by way of Maryland where he finished third behind Just Howard in the Commonwealth Derby. Similar to Just Howard, his top trainer (Shug McGaughey), doesn’t ship into California much but is 2-for-9 in the past five years when he does, with one second-place finish as well. Mike Smith, who is having the best year of his career and who continues to win at a very high percentage on fewer mounts than the rest of the top 10 jockeys in North America, rides this horse for the first time, and that’s a positive sign as well. Prior to the Commonwealth, Profiteer won against older horses (3 year olds and older) with a career-best 111 figure that if repeated here could have him in the thick of the action at the finish line.
Sharp Samurai is certainly a win contender, having won three stakes in a row including the La Jolla Handicap in August (105 figure) and the Del Mar Derby last month (104 figure). Gary Stevens has been aboard for all three wins and rides again. With the Del Mar Derby win coming at the same distance at the Twilight Derby, Sharp Samurai can be expected to run competitively once again. However, considering the depth of talent in this field, and considering Bowies Hero might have beat him the Del Mar Derby if the jockey hadn’t dropped the whip, Sharp Samurai is not a standout here.
Two more horses definitely worthy of mention are Cowboy Culture and Troublewithatee. Cowboy Culture ships in from the Midwest for excellent trainer Brad Cox (26 percent wins this year and 32 percent wins in turf route races in the past 12 months). Jockey Florent Geroux, who comes into California off a strong meeting at Keeneland, has been aboard for four of the colt’s five wins, all on turf. After taking the Arlington Classic Stakes in May with a career-best 108 figure, Cowboy Culture captured the Centaur Stakes last month at Indiana Grand. Troublewithatee makes his stakes debut, but make no mistake he fits here based on his 102 figure two races back in August followed by a new career-best 105 figure in a 1 1/8-mile race last month on the same Santa Anita turf course. Corey Nakatani rode him for the first time in his August win as well as in his win last month, and the gelding was flattered when the runner-up from his September race won very nicely last week.
The rest of the Twilight Derby field (with their best representative Equibase Speed Figure): Ann Arbor Eddie (102 but on an all-weather surface), Big Score (108), Channel Maker (103 but on an all-weather surface), Cistron (100 but on dirt) and Dangerfield (102).
Win contenders, in probability order: