Betting Promising Maiden Winners in the American Pharoah Stakes

Penelope P. Miller/America's Best Racing

Is it possible that the top two finishers from an ordinary maiden race at Del Mar could return to run 1-2 in Friday’s $300,000 Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita Park? It might sound far-fetched at first, but in my opinion, it’s far from an impossibility.

Racing fans are advised to keep a close eye on the outcome of the American Pharoah Stakes. Named after its 2014 winner, who famously swept the 2015 Triple Crown, the American Pharoah Stakes is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Grade 1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile five weeks from now, and it’s also an official prep race on the Road to the 2020 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve. This means that the top four finishers will earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points on a 10-4-2-1 basis.

Eight Rings (Eclipse Sportswire)

Perhaps as a result, the American Pharoah Stakes has attracted a stellar field of proven stakes performers and exciting up-and-comers, including #3 Eight Rings. Conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the American Pharoah on eight occasions, Eight Rings burst onto the scene with a powerful debut victory on Aug. 4 at Del Mar. Favored at 3-5 in a maiden sprint, Eight Rings pressed a fast pace, took command in the stretch, and pulled clear to win by 6 ¼ lengths with eye-catching speed figures of 94 (Beyer) and 100 (Brisnet).

This impressive performance established Eight Rings as the clear favorite for the Grade 1 Runhappy Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 2, but nothing went as planned. Shortly after the start, Eight Rings ducked in sharply and collided with another horse, in the process causing both riders to fall. On the bright side, no one was seriously injured, and Eight Rings stayed on his feet to continue running the race on his own.

This is where Eight Rings really caught my eye. Colliding with another runner cost Eight Rings a lot of momentum, and he appeared to drop at least 15 or 20 lengths behind the pack. Many horses would lose interest in running at this point and just gallop around the track or head for the outer rail. But Eight Rings showed the competitive spirit of a high-class racehorse, catching up with the field and passing them all shortly after the finish line.

Possibly in an effort to avoid a repeat of the Del Mar Futurity, Baffert will equip Eight Rings with blinkers for the American Pharoah Stakes. This is a strong move for Baffert – he wins at a 36% rate when adding blinkers for the first time – so I’ll view the change as a positive.

The bigger question mark, at least in theory, is the 1 1/16-mile distance of the American Pharoah. Eight Rings has never run farther than seven-eighths of a mile, but as a son of 2003 Belmont Stakes winner Empire Maker, he has the breeding to excel over longer distances.

Ironically, Eight Rings’ stiffest challenge could come from #4 Express Train, the distant runner-up in Eight Rings’ impressive debut. Trained by John Shirreffs of Zenyatta fame, Express Train was clearly second-best that day, pulling 9 ¼ lengths clear of the third-place finisher while earning strong speed figures of his own.

Subsequently, Express Train stretched out to a mile and absolutely obliterated his rivals in another Del Mar maiden race. With Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith in the saddle, Express Train pulled away to win by 14 ¼ lengths, earning an 83 Beyer and a 100 Brisnet speed figure.

The fact that Express Train has already won over a mile is a big positive – he’s the only runner in the American Pharoah field who can boast this experience. Purchased for $500,000 as a yearling, Express Train is a son of 2012 Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags out of a mare by 2003 Horse of the Year Mineshaft, so he’s bred to improve with maturity. I’m excited to see how he progresses on Friday, and I think there’s a good chance he can turn the tables on Eight Rings.

In constructing my wagering strategies for the American Pharoah Stakes, I’ll strongly emphasize Eight Rings and Express Train, for the most part counting on them both to finish in the top three. I’ll also give a lot of support to #1 American Theorem, a son of American Pharoah who rallied to win a quality maiden sprint on Aug. 31 at Del Mar.

In contrast, I’ll play against #8 Nucky, #6 Defense Wins, and #2 Fore Left, the 1-3-5 finishers from the Del Mar Futurity. After Eight Rings lost his rider, the Del Mar Futurity really fell apart, with a fast pace leading to a staggering finish and a slow final time. This doesn’t mean the Del Mar Futurity runners can’t improve in the American Pharoah – Nucky in particular might have upside since he survived the fast pace to pull away and win by 2 ¾ lengths. But Eight Rings and Express Train have made better visual impressions, and I suspect they might be a cut above their more accomplished rivals.

If you’re playing on a small budget, I suggest boxing Eight Rings and Express Train in the exacta – if they run 1-2 in either order, you’ll cash a ticket. But if you want to aim for a larger score, consider spending a little more to key Express Train in the trifecta with Eight Rings, American Theorem, #5 Storm the Court, and #7 Shoplifted.

Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget

$5 exacta box: 3,4 ($10)

What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 8th race, $5 exacta box 3,4

Wagering Strategy on a $24 Budget

$2 trifecta: 4 with 1,3 with 1,3,5,7 ($12)

What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 8th race, $2 trifecta 4 with 1,3 with 1,3,5,7

$2 trifecta: 1,3 with 4 with 1,3,5,7 ($12)

What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 8th race, $2 trifecta 1,3 with 4 with 1,3,5,7

Good luck, and enjoy the race!

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