Get ready, racing fans! Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve qualifying points and a “Win and You’re In” berth to the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance will be on the line when seven talented 2-year-old Thoroughbreds face off in Friday’s $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
Viewed through a historical lens, there are two ways to handicap the American Pharoah. The trends and tendencies from past renewals paint two conflicting pictures, and making a selection may come down to favoring one historical marker over the other.
The first stat is a bit complex: maiden winners without stakes experience don’t win the American Pharoah very often. Since 2000, 20 out of 21 American Pharoah winners had previously competed in a stakes race. On 14 occasions, the American Pharoah winner used the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity as a springboard to success at Santa Anita. Those are some powerful numbers!
The second stat is simpler: no trainer has won the American Pharoah more times than Bob Baffert, who has saddled nine winners since 1997. Baffert’s past stars include champions Lookin At Lucky, Game Winner, and American Pharoah himself, for whom this race was renamed in 2018.
Baffert won the 2021 Runhappy Del Mar Futurity with Pinehurst, who very likely would have been favored to come right back and add the American Pharoah to his resume — he’s a perfect fit for the historical trends, after all. But since Pinehurst is skipping Friday’s race, we’re left without a historically satisfying choice to visit the American Pharoah winner’s circle. Three of the entrants have previously competed in a stakes race, and three are trained by Bob Baffert, but there isn’t any overlap between the two groups.
If we want to favor a stakes performer, #3 Finneus might be the one. A maiden winner at Santa Anita in June, Finneus held his own against quality competition at Del Mar this summer, unleashing late rallies to finish second in both the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes and the Del Mar Futurity.
As a son of 2011 Travers Stakes winner Stay Thirsty out of a mare by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper, Finneus has the pedigree to handle 1 1/16 miles. But as a one-dimensional late runner, Finneus is at a tactical disadvantage compared with horses with more early speed and a fast pace may be necessary to set up his rally.
With this in mind, we’re going to defy the stakes-experience trend and instead favor #1 Corniche, the flashiest of the three Baffert trainees. The son of Quality Road has only run once, winning a maiden sprint Sept. 4 at Del Mar by 4 1/4 lengths. Stepping up in class and distance for the American Pharoah is a big test, but there are reasons to believe Corniche is up to the challenge.
For starters, Corniche’s debut victory was massive. He led by daylight all the way and ran genuinely fast on the clock while doing so. Not only did Corniche sprint the opening quarter-mile in a blazing :21.72 seconds, he rocketed the final sixteenth of a mile in 5.87 seconds, a remarkably quick split coming at the conclusion of a fast-paced sprint.
Corniche’s strong finish bodes well for his chances of stretching out to 1 1/16 miles in the American Pharoah. Expectations are clearly high for the promising bay colt, who sold for $1.5 million during the spring. Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith was aboard for Corniche’s debut and retains the mount on Friday, so we can expect to see Corniche come out running from the rail and dare his rivals to catch up. If Corniche repeats his maiden effort, I don’t believe he’ll be defeated.
Assuming Corniche leads all the way, he may compromise the chances of fellow front-runners #2 Flying Drummer, #5 Joker Boy, and #6 Rockefeller. Such a scenario would surely help Finneus pick up the pieces, but it may also place #4 Oviatt Class in the hunt for a top three-three finish.
A stoutly-bred son of 2006 Preakness Stakes winner Bernardini, Oviatt Class turned in an eye-catching performance to secure a breakthrough victory on Aug. 27 at Del Mar. Employing stretch-running tactics in a one-mile maiden special weight (his first start running long on dirt), Oviatt Class came sweeping from 7 1/2 lengths off the pace to crush his rivals — including American Pharoah entrant Flying Drummer — by 4 1/4 lengths. As the only American Pharoah entrant to have won a two-turn race, the conditions of Friday’s test should suit Oviatt Class just fine.
Depending on how much money you’ve allocated for betting the American Pharoah, we have two wagering strategies for you to consider. Bettors playing on a $10 budget can favor an exacta keying Corniche over Finneus and Oviatt Class, while bettors with a bit more capital to spend can tackle trifecta tickets adding Rockefeller and Joker Boy for third place.
Wagering Strategy on a $10 Budget
$5 exacta: 1 with 3,4 ($10)
What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 8th race, $5 exacta 1 with 3,4
Wagering Strategy on a $30 Budget
$6 exacta: 1 with 3,4 ($12)
What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 8th race, $6 exacta 1 with 3,4
$3 trifecta: 1 with 3,4 with 3,4,5,6 ($18)
What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 8th race, $3 trifecta 1 with 3,4 with 3,4,5,6
Good luck, and enjoy the race!