The 80th running of the Grade 1, $1 million Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park enticed 13 horses to enter, with the goal of getting enough points on the road to the Kentucky Derby series leaderboard to be eligible to enter the starting gate in Louisville on the first Saturday in May. At this stage, it appears even 20 points earned by the third-place finisher in this race might give a horse's connections the choice to enter the Derby, with the winner's (100 points) and runner-up's (40) shares definitely enough to start.
In terms of performances early in the year in stakes, Grade 3 Sham Stakes winner Gormley and runner-up American Anthem fit, but both need a turnaround off poor efforts in their most recent races as Gormley finished fourth in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes while American Anthem ended up 10th in the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes. Royal Mo finds himself in a similar situation as he won the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes before a ninth-place finish in the Rebel. Similarly, So Conflated won the California Derby then finished a well-beaten sixth in the Grade 3 Gotham Stakes. Bettors will probably end up on Iliad as the favorite as he won the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes in February before a runner-up effort behind now-sidelined Mastery in the San Felipe. New faces in the stakes ranks entering the Santa Anita Derby off big efforts over the track include Battle of Midway, Reach the World, Comma Sister and Kimbear.
Kimbear is the one I will give slight preference to among five that are legitimate contenders to win this year's Santa Anita Derby. The 103 Equibase Speed Figure earned winning his most recent race over the track stacks up perfectly with the 103 figure Iliad earned when second in the most recent local prep for this race. I've always been a fan of the stretch out from seven furlongs to a mile and an eighth as well, and the colt's three local workouts since he last raced are first-rate so there's little doubt he is in top condition. Other reasons to like Kimbear are that he was entered in the Sunland Derby recently and scratched to go here. Although the runner-up in Kimbear's win, Sonneteer, did not win his next start in the Rebel Stakes, he ran a huge race when rallying for second at 99-to-1 odds. In doing so, Sonneteer improved his Equibase figure by eight points off his effort behind Kimbear, so if this colt does the same thing he can post the upset.
Iliad was no match for Mastery in the San Felipe but was clearly second-best and with Mastery sidelined appears to be formidable in this situation. The San Felipe was his first try around two turns so further improvement can be expected off that effort, which earned a 103 speed figure. Iliad earned a 108 figure winning the San Vicente Stakes prior to that. Meet-leading jockey Flavien Prat was in the saddle for both big efforts and rides again.
Reach the World and Battle of Midway were separated by a neck when second and first, respectively, in a highly rated (103 figure) allowance race over the track last month. Although Battle of Midway may have a bit more improving to do as he makes his second career start in a route, I like the improving pattern of Equibase figures Reach the World has put in (91, 98, 103) since his debut and the fact that jockey Mike Smith recently said he chose this colt over Bob Baffert's other two starters (American Anthem and Irish Freedom) because he wants to be aboard when the colt comes into his own.
Comma Sister is probably a long shot we don't want to ignore. His first two races didn't show much talent, but those were both last October. In his 3-year-old debut on Feb. 20, Comma Sister added blinkers for the first time and the result was a mature, off-the-pace victory on turf but at the mile and-one eighth distance of the Santa Anita Derby. The 102 figure is as good as the top contenders and the colt was flattered when the third finisher came back to win his next start. There is no doubt the blinkers were the reason for the big effort and the colt's breeding suggests running as well on dirt is no problem.
I just can't make the case that the quartet of horses that ran so well one race before their most recent starts, then threw in clunkers, can return all the way to top form. Those are; So Conflated, who earned a career-best 94 figure winning the California Derby before a 68 figure and sixth-place finish (beaten 22 lengths) in the Gotham; American Anthem, with a 115 figure in the Sham when beaten a head before a 85 figure and 10th place Rebel effort; Gormley, who won the Sham with a 116 figure before a 98 figure when a non-threatening fourth in the San Felipe; and Royal Mo, who went from a 107 figure winning the Lewis to an 88 figure when ninth in the Rebel.
The rest of the field, with their best representative Equibase Speed Figures, is Irish Freedom (89), Midnight Pleasure (88), Milton Freewater (90) and Term of Art (100).
My selections in preference order:
Reach the World
Battle of Midway