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The Grade 1, $400,000 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park, moved back two months from its usual place on the calendar due to the suspension of racing in Southern California this spring, is one heck of a racing puzzle. The seven-horse field for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve qualifying race is led by the undefeated colt Authentic, winner of the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at this track when last seen three months ago. Authentic is trained by Bob Baffert, who won this race last year with Roadster and in 2018 with eventual Triple Crown winner Justify. Baffert also saddles Azul Coast, winner of the El Camino Real Derby on an all-weather surface in February, which was his most recent race. San Felipe runner-up Honor A. P. will try to improve and turn the tables on his rival, while last year’s Grade 1 TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Anneau d’Or will try to reverse his fortunes from his two starts this year in which he finished ninth and fifth, respectively, most recently in a division of the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby. New faces on the stakes scene include a pair of recent winners in Rushie and Shooters Shoot and recent runner-up Friar’s Road.
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Honor A. P. stretched out to two turns last October at Santa Anita off a runner-up effort in his career debut sprinting and his pedigree showed through as he waltzed home to a 5 ¼-length win. Earning a sensational 105 Equibase Speed Figure for a 2-year-old maiden winner in the fall, Honor A. P. was given time off to mature and returned nearly five months later in the San Felipe Stakes to face Authentic, who had run much more recently in January. Chasing Authentic the entire length of the stretch, Honor A. P. held second easily to earn a 101 figure. Coming back to his pedigree, Honor A. P. is out of the sensational mare Hollywood Story, who earned more than $1 million while winning multiple Grade 1 stakes. She’s produced eight foals which have run well to date but this may be her best yet. Honor A. P. is by Honor Code, who earned $2.5 million and was also a multiple graded stakes winner. Honor Code is a son of Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner A.P. Indy, so there is little doubt Honor A. P. can handle the 1 1/8-mile trip of the Santa Anita Derby. Honor Code’s first crop of 3-year-olds is racing this year and one of them, Max Player, already proved himself at the distance of the Santa Anita Derby when winning the Withers Stakes in February. Considering Honor A. P. is very likely to improve in his second start as a 3-year-old, and that favorite Authentic may not improve as much and may have a harder time leading from start to finish as he did in the San Felipe, it appears Honor A. P. could win this year’s Santa Anita Derby.
Shooters Shoot is the horse I feel will be in front shortly after the gate opens in the Santa Anita Derby, and that may not only take Authentic out of his game, it may give Shooters Shoot a chance at posting the upset. Shooters Shoot didn’t run that well in his first four starts between August of last year and February, but when stretched out to two turns for the first time as a 3-year-old in March, he graduated from the maiden ranks with honors. Leading from start to finish in a one-mile race at Santa Anita, Shooters Shoot coasted home by 3 ¼ lengths to earn a 97 figure. Sent to Oaklawn Park to prep for the Arkansas Derby, Shooters Shoot next ran an incredible race going a mile as he battled head-and-head from the opening bell through swift in-race fractions and still prevailed by a neck. That effort earned a slightly lower 96 figure but it proved his mental toughness and athletic ability. Unfortunately, a few days before the Arkansas Derby the colt developed a fever and had to be scratched. Returning to trainer Peter Eurton’s base at Santa Anita, Shooters Shoot resumed training in mid-May and has been showing all the signs he’s in peak physical condition. Considering Authentic earned his wins in the Sham Stakes and San Felipe Stakes leading from start to finish, and since Shooters Shoot has drawn inside Authentic in the gate, Authentic will have a much harder time making the lead he appears to need to win if jockey Abel Cedillo (currently the second leading rider at Santa Anita) asks Shooters Shoot for some early speed. From that point, if Authentic tries to press Shooters Shoot, Shooters Shoot can still be a strong factor in the stretch having shown his tenacity in battling in his most recent start. It’s still more likely Honor A. P. can stalk in third early and go by to win, but nevertheless Shooters Shoot has a big shot to run well in this race.
Authentic is undefeated in three races and on that count alone can’t be discounted as a contender to win the Santa Anita Derby. Add to that, trainer Bob Baffert’s strong record in a race in which he’s saddled three of the last five and five of the last 11 winners, including Roadster last year and Justify in 2018. Authentic earned a field-high 113 Equibase Speed Figure winning the Sham Stakes in January, his second career start and first around two turns, beating next-out El Camino Real Derby winner Azul Coast in the process. Two months later in the San Felipe Stakes, Authentic controlled the pace from start to finish and won by a little over two lengths. However, he regressed to a 105 figure. Although continuing to work well since then, it’s interesting the colt has put in three straight six-furlong workouts, not the pattern one might expect from a totally fit horse. Then again, I am not questioning Baffert’s training regimen when so much of his success has come in 3-year-old stakes races like this one. My concern about Authentic lies in the fact that if he is indeed a need-the-lead type – and if Shooters Shoot utilizes his early speed, Authentic may find himself a bit out of his game. That, combined with a decline in his figure from his previous race, and the fact he will likely be the prohibitive betting favorite, means I will try to beat him when I make my bets in this race, although his winning would be no surprise.
The rest of the field, all with a chance to succeed with their top efforts, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Anneau d’Or (106 in 2019), Azul Coast (101 when second to Authentic in the Sham Stakes), Friar's Road (92 when second to Shooters Shoot) and Rushie (101).