Saturday’s 19th running of the Grade 3, $100,000 Sham Stakes kicks off Santa Anita Park’s series of Road to the Kentucky Derby preps by giving some newly turned 3-year-olds a chance to earn qualifying points for the first leg of the Triple Crown. Seven hopefuls line up, two coming from the barn of Bob Baffert, who has won this race in three of the last five years, including last year with McKinzie. Peter Miller saddles a pair of runners, as does Keith Desormeaux, leaving Jerry Hollendorfer as the only trainer with a sole entrant. Hollendorfer’s entry is Gunmetal Gray, the only horse in the field to have run in the Grade 1 Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, in which he rallied wide from 12th of 13 to end up fifth at the end. That effort followed a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes behind eventual Sentient Jet Juvenile winner Game Winner. Much Better, one of the two Baffert trainees, finished last of 14 in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf following a runner-up effort in the Zuma Beach Stakes (also on turf), but he broke his maiden on dirt prior to that. Gray Magician (one of Miller's pair) and Coliseum (the other Baffert trainee) both earned their first wins impressively in November and hope to duplicate the feat of 2014 Sham winner Midnight Hawk, who was one of the recent winners trained by Baffert and who jumped from winning a maiden special weight race to winning this graded stakes. Sueno (one of the two Desormeaux entrants) enters the race off a victory in the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate Fields at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Sham, while Savagery (the other Miller trainee) finished second in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes in November before a poorer, fourth place effort in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity last month. Easy Shot, the other Desormeaux entrant, earned his first win last time out by 3 ½ lengths, but did so in a maiden claiming race.
Sueno can post the upset in this race based on the way he took to two turns last month when winning the Gold Rush Stakes. Having been away from the races for three months, Sueno maturely rallied from fifth to draw off late and win by 1 ½ lengths, earning a career-best 95 Equibase Speed Figure. Although the Gold Rush was run on an all-weather surface, Sueno proved capable on dirt prior to that with a 4 ¾-length win in a field of 10 at Del Mar. Kent Desormeaux gets the mount for the first time on Sueno, and that's a very positive angle according to STATS Race Lens. In the past five years, horses trained by Kent’s brother Keith Desormeaux which get a jockey change to Kent have won 25% of the time on 72 races, and betting those 72 horses to win has returned a healthy 25% profit. Sueno’s dam has produced four other horses besides him, and all four are dirt route winners, and that’s another reason to suggest Sueno can improve nicely off his first route win last time out and score an upset in the Sham.
Gunmetal Gray won his two-turn debut in August by nearly seven lengths. He followed up that effort with a career-best 100 figure earned when second to 4 ½-length winner Game Winner in the American Pharoah Stakes in September. Like Game Winner, Gunmetal Gray returned five weeks later to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but he did not run as well, finishing fifth after being far back early. Rested two months in preparation for his 3-year-old campaign, Gunmetal Gray gets the services of Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith on Saturday and has stakes experience three others in the field lack, including likely favorite Coliseum. As such, if Gunmetal Gray can logically improve off his American Pharoah Stakes effort as a much more physically mature 3-year-old, he can run well enough to win this race.
Gray Magician broke his maiden impressively in his most recent race, romping by 9 ½ lengths on Nov. 24 at Del Mar, but facing stakes competition could be a whole different matter. However, Gray Magician earned a 98 figure while winning at the Sham’s mile trip and the Del Mar race also followed a two-month layoff, so improvement is possible on Saturday. Gray Magician has excellent breeding for the trip as well, as his half-brother Lombo won the 2018 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (last February) at Santa Anita. Grey Magician also showed a lot of maturity in his most recent race as he rallied from third, five lengths back, to win going away.
I feel I must mention Coliseum as he may be the betting favorite based on his easy 6 ¾-length win in his only career start, in which he led from nearly start to finish in a Nov. 17 one-mile maiden at Del Mar and earned a field-high 104 figure. That style may be problematic in the Sham as Savagery puts blinkers back on and will likely be sent to the front from the start. However, Coliseum does have history on his side because his trainer, Bob Baffert, has won 33% of the time (14 for 42) when starting a horse off a debut maiden win in a stakes race over the last five years, including with Midnight Hawk in this race back in 2014.
The rest of the Sham field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, features Easy Shot (88), Much Better (97) and Savagery (97).