Saturday’s $300,000, Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita Park is a “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare on Nov. 6 at Keeneland Race Course. Of the eight entrants, only one – Waspirant – has won a route race of a mile or more, doing so last month to break his maiden in his second career start. Furthermore, only one starter – Weston – has won a stakes race, taking the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes at seven furlongs in August. However, the other six all have the potential to take that leap forward and run well enough to win, including Grade 1 Runhappy Del Mar Futurity runner-up Spielberg, who is still a maiden as he also finished second in his only other race to date. Get Her Number led from the start in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes just 19 days ago and settled for fourth at the end but was beaten just a pair of noses for the runner-up spot. Dyn O Mite was much further back in fifth in the Del Mar Futurity, while Rombauer was sixth in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf. Notable Exception is a truly unknown quantity as he is the only horse not to have run locally, breaking his maiden in his debut on Sept. 4 at Arlington Park in Illinois. Touchdown Brown rounds out the field and enters the race off a half-length defeat in the I’m Smokin Stakes (restricted to California-bred horses) around one turn three weeks ago.
In spite of only having run once and not having run around two turns, Notable Exception is my top choice to win this year’s American Pharoah Stakes. In his debut at Arlington, Notable Exception demonstrated a lot of physical and mental quality as he battled for the lead from the start then relinquished it briefly before a half-mile had been run. Reasserting himself on the turn, Notable Exception drew off to a three-length lead with an eighth of a mile to go before extending the lead to 5 ¼ lengths at the end. Since that time, Notable Exception returned to trainer Jack Sisterson’s base at Keeneland and he put in a strong 59.80 five-furlong workout to signal he’s getting stronger every day, as a 2-year-old should be at this time of year. His 64 Equibase Speed Figure earned at Arlington was unremarkable compared to some of the others in this race, but 2-year-olds have been known to improve markedly from one race to the next and that is what I am expecting of this colt. Most of all, Notable Exception has a pedigree which tells me he will run very well in this 1 1/16-mile race. Using STATS Race Lens to look at what other foals of sire Street Sense have done, I note that 13 sons and daughters of the sire have run in stakes races for 2-year-olds, with four individual horses having won. Perhaps as telling is the fact that Notable Exception has a half-brother (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) who won three of his first four races in 2017 and 2018, including the Shared Belief Stakes. Notable Exception was particularly impressive winning his debut, and since I have no doubts about his ability to stretch out to this distance and run well, I think he can win this race.
Waspirant finished fourth in his debut, a six-furlong sprint, at 32.40-1 odds on Aug. 8 then returned just 21 days later at a mile and was an entirely different horse. In that second career start, Waspirant stalked the pacesetter by a half-length through the opening half-mile, was second with an eighth of a mile to go, and then got up late to win by three-quarters of a length. That was a pretty professional effort for a horse making only the second start of his career. After improving to an 81 figure, Waspirant now adds blinkers for Saturday’s race, likely as a result of a suggestion by jockey Umberto Rispoli, who missed winning the riding title at the recently concluded Del Mar meeting by one win (behind Flavien Prat). The blinkers should help Waspirant keep down distractions, so he should improve. That expected improvement, coupled with the fact he is the only horse in the field with a win around two turns on dirt, make Waspirant a strong contender down to the wire in the American Pharoah Stakes.
Touchdown Brown won impressively in his debut in June racing at 4 ½ furlongs, earning a phenomenal 96 figure which is stakes quality. Entering the Graduation Stakes for his next start, Touchdown Brown finished last of seven while never threatening as the 11-10 betting favorite. Blinkers were added for his following race on Sept. 4 in the I’m Smokin Stakes and the colt responded with a very game effort when beaten only a half-length, rebounding to a 95 figure while finishing 4 ¼ lengths clear of the next horse. Interestingly enough, the blinkers will come off for the American Pharoah but that’s likely a method to curtail the colt’s early speed and get him to relax as he may have other company near the front. Still, Touchdown Brown may not be a need-the-lead type as he rallied from third in his debut win without blinkers. As a son of Cairo Prince, there’s little doubt Touchdown Brown will run even better at this longer distance as per STATS Race Lens the sire has produced five dirt route stakes winners from 13 individual horses which have competed at this level. With the ground saving rail and a potential pace battle on the front end, Touchdown Brown could be rallying strongly to win on Saturday.
Spielberg and Get Her Number are notable contenders for a couple of reasons, but I feel they don’t have the same probability to win compared to Notable Exception, Waspirant or Touchdown Brown. Both have proven competitive in stakes, but both also wear blinkers and appear to have the same need-the-lead style, which means they could run faster than average in the early stages and be vulnerable to being passed late. Spielberg finished second in his debut with an 85 figure, and then second again in the Del Mar Futurity. In both races he was beaten by Dr. Schivel, a colt whose connections recently announced is getting the rest of the year off to prepare for the Road to the Kentucky Derby in 2021. Get Her Number won his debut at five furlongs on turf in August with an 86 figure and then stretched out to a mile, also on grass, in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes three weeks ago. In that race, Get Her Number led easily in the early stages but then had to fight head-and-head starting with a quarter mile to go, eventually settling for fourth. Also worth mentioning is Weston, who won at 4 ½ furlongs in his debut in June with a 93 figure. However, in spite of winning the Best Pal Stakes at six furlongs in his next start he regressed to an 84 figure, and then regressed again to 77 when checking in third, nearly four lengths behind runner-up Spielberg, in the Del Mar Futurity earlier this month.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Dyn O Mite (84); and Rombauer (85).