A historian might be needed to find the last time a trainer skipped a Triple Crown race in favor of a prep race for the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
Yet here in 2020, with the world facing problems no one could have foreseen from the COVID-19 pandemic, that exact set of circumstances unfolded June 6 and the man who made that decision was delighted at the way it turned out.
“He ran great, it was a super effort,” said trainer John Shirreffs after Honor A. P.’s victory in the Grade 1 Runhappy Santa Anita Derby. “I’m just happy for everybody involved.”
Once upon a time, the $400,000 Santa Anita Derby was scheduled for April 4 at Santa Anita Park, with the Kentucky Derby following on May 2 and the Belmont Stakes closing out the Triple Crown for 3-year-olds June 6.
Then coronavirus ravaged the nation and the Kentucky Derby was switched to Sept 5 with the Belmont Stakes moving to a June 20 date and the front of the Triple Crown line.
Though he has in Honor A. P. a horse who seems a natural fit for the classics, Shirreffs did not sway from his original plan of staying in California for the Santa Anita Derby and was rewarded when C R K Stable’s son of Honor Code turned the tables on the previously unbeaten Authentic. The 3-year-old colt rolled to a 2 ¾-length victory under jockey Mike Smith that assured him of a spot in the Kentucky Derby, even if he has to wait until September to use that ticket.
“He gives every indication that he can go a mile and a quarter,” Smith said about the Kentucky Derby. “Just the way he galloped out today. I mean I had to pull him up.”
That berth in the Kentucky came courtesy of the 100 qualifying points Honor A. P. picked up in his victory in Saturday’s stakes that also awarded 40-20-10 points to the second through fourth finishers. He now has 120 points and is second in the standings behind Tiz the Law, the probable favorite in the Belmont Stakes who has 122 points.
“We were happy with the way Honor A. P. was training for the race,” Shirreffs said. “We knew that he has tactical speed and Mike can put him pretty much where he wants. On the backside, we hoped he would get comfortable to have a nice little kick in the end, and it all worked out well.”
Authentic, the 1-2 favorite and trainer Bob Baffert’s leading hopeful for a 10th Santa Anita Derby victory, had beaten Honor A. P. when the two met March 7 in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. On that day, Authentic cruised along with a clear lead and Honor A. P., even with a nice stretch run, had to settle for a runner-up finish, 2 1/4 lengths behind.
In Saturday’s rematch, Authentic broke toward the outside at the start from the outside post in the field of seven and then was caught wide on both turns, leading to some fatigue in the stretch when Honor A. P. sailed past him.
“I was worried about him having the outside post,” Baffert said. “He got parked wide, which you don’t want to see, and he got tired at the end after doing some heavy lifting. But you have to give credit to the winner, he ran a good race and he’s a good horse.”
Authentic’s first loss in four career starts added to a rough day on the Triple Crown front for Baffert and Jack Wolf of Starlight Racing and Sol Kumin of Madaket Stable, who own Authentic along with Spendthrift Farm, which acquired racing and breeding rights to the son of Into Mischief early this week.
Baffert also trains Charlatan for a group that includes Wolf and Kumin, and shortly before the Santa Anita Derby it was reported that the undefeated son of Speightstown had suffered an ankle injury that will sideline him for at least 45 days and prevent him from running in the Belmont Stakes and Kentucky Derby.
“He had a little filling in his ankle. So we did a MRI and he has some tiny little specks,” Baffert said. “It’s the first time he’s had heat in an ankle. We’ll give him 45 days off and flush it out and get him going. It will knock him out of the Kentucky Derby. The Preakness is a longshot, but he should be ready for the Breeders’ Cup.”
Saturday’s 1-2 punch was a tough one, especially considering that Baffert had considered Authentic to be his No. 1 Kentucky Derby hopeful and Charlatan was 3-for-3 and seemed a top contender for the Belmont Stakes or Grade 1 Claiborne Farm Woody Stephens Stakes on June 6 and the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Invitational Stakes after that. Charlatan is also facing the possibility of being stripped of a victory in the Arkansas Derby if a post-race drug test comes back positive for the second time.
“It’s a tough game. When you start feeling good, you get knocked down,” Kumin said. “It’s nothing major with Charlatan, but 45 days doesn’t mean they run in 45 days. A lot of things went wrong today.”
Such as when the gates opened in the Santa Anita Derby. When Authentic and jockey Drayden Van Dyke broke slowly and to the outside in the 1 1/8-mile stakes, it allowed Shooters Shoot and Anneau d’Or to grab the lead inside of them. Caught in a three-way battle for the lead through a half-mile in :46.88, Authentic got to the front turning for home, but then drifted in as Honor A. P. rushed past with a closing spurt from fifth that would not be denied and filled Shirreffs with gratitude for another major win with Smith.
For those with short memories, Shirreffs and Smith had a pretty good run about 10 years ago with a mare by the name of Zenyatta.
“I can’t thank Mike Smith enough for all that he has done. Whenever I need Mike, he’s always there for me. I really appreciate that,” Shirreffs said.
Sent off as the 2.20-1 second choice, Honor A. P. paid $6.40 to win while needing 1:48.97 to cover the nine furlongs.
“I have owned horses since I was 18 years old, so [it’s been] 54 years [in the sport],” owner Lee Searing said. “I’ve never had a Santa Anita Derby winner. John knew we had the beginnings of a very nice horse. We knew he was special.
“We will cherish each and every day with this special horse.”
Shirreffs said he was uncertain of what’s next for Honor A. P.
“It’s up to him whether we run him again before the big dance. We have to see how the horse comes out and how he feels, but you’d always prefer to run,” Shirreffs said “Running is probably the best option rather than training up to it, but we’ll wait and see how it all happens.”
Another 1 ¼ lengths behind Authentic, Jim and Donna Daniell’s Rushie was third in his stakes debut, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Peter Redekop BC’s Anneau d’Or.
The victory was the second in four career starts for Honor A. P., who was purchased for $850,000 in 2018 from the Hill ‘n’ Dale Sales Agency consignment at The Saratoga Sale, Fasig-Tipton’s August sale of selected yearlings. Bred by George Krikorian out of Grade 1 winner Hollywood Story, Honor A. P. is the first graded stakes winner for his dam and has earned $362,200.
Authentic’s 40 points give him 100 and puts Baffert in the position of having at least one Kentucky Derby contender at the moment after he seemed to have an embarrassment of riches just a few weeks ago with the unbeaten trio of Nadal, who was injured last week, Charlatan, and Authentic.
“Bob’s hand doesn’t look the same now,” Kumin said.
Even Baffert knows that.
“Authentic better come out of this race good,” Baffert said. “I’m running low on horses.”
Low, of course, is a relative term when applied to Baffert. Even on a tough afternoon, he had the upside of winning the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup Stakes with Improbable and becoming the third trainer to surpass $300 million in North America in purse earnings.
He also sent out a rather interesting 3-year-old for his career debut. Named Cezanne, the son of Curlin was bought for $3.65 million as a 2-year-old and captured his first start Saturday by 2 1/4 lengths.
We’ll see about that.