Saturday’s card at Santa Anita Park includes the $300,000, Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes. Some of California’s top 3-year-olds will square off in the final local prep race for the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 3.
Of course, many of these horses have their eyes on bigger prizes. The top four finishers will earn points toward the Grade 1 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, with the winner getting 50 points.
The San Felipe was first held in 1935, and has been restricted to 3-year-olds since 1941. Since 1952, it has been held at its current distance of 1 1/16 miles. It has been a Grade 2 race since 1989.
This year’s San Felipe will be featured on Road to the Derby Live!, hosted by Dan Tordjman, Bram Weinstein, and Matt Bernier. The broadcast will be streamed on YouTube, Twitter, and Facebook with a start time to be announced soon.
Here, we’ll take a look back at some of the best horses to win the San Felipe.
CAREER RECORD: 29 starts, 22 wins, 5 seconds, 1 third
CAREER EARNINGS: $2,393,818
Affirmed was already a very familiar name to racing fans going into the 1978 Derby trail. He was voted champion 2-year-old male of 1977 on the strength of three Grade 1 wins. All of those victories came against another promising colt named Alydar, who turned the tables on Affirmed in the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes towards the end of the year. While Affirmed spent the majority of 1977 on the east coast, trainer Laz Barrera decided to send him west in early 1978 to prepare for the Kentucky Derby.
He began his 3-year-old season with an allowance race on March 8, which he won handily by five lengths. Eleven days later, he squared off against five rivals in the San Felipe Handicap. As the highweight of the field by four pounds, Affirmed was the 3-10 favorite.
He had to sweat a little bit but still got the job done. Superstar jockey Steve Cauthen, carrying the pink and black Harbor View Farm silks, rated Affirmed off the lead then asked him for run around the final turn. However, early leader Chance Dancer refused to give in and valiantly held onto the lead. With the two matching strides down the stretch, the outcome was in doubt until the last sixteenth, when Affirmed finally wore the longshot down and drew off to a two-length win.
The San Felipe was just the start of Affirmed’s momentous 3-year-old season. He won his next two Derby preps handily, then swept his way through the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and the Belmont Stakes to become the 11th Triple Crown winner. In each race, his archrival Alydar finished second. The Belmont saw a titanic duel between the two rivals, with Affirmed ultimately prevailing by a head.
As a 5-year-old in 1979, Affirmed won five more Grade 1 races, including a win over the great Spectacular Bid in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He became the first horse to earn more than $2 million in a career, retiring as the all-time leading money earner.
DESERT WINE (1983)
CAREER RECORD: 25 starts, 8 wins, 8 seconds, 3 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $1,618,043
Desert Wine was already well-accomplished going into the 1983 San Felipe Handicap. He was a three-time graded stakes winner, and had finished second in three more stakes, including the Hollywood Futurity, which at the time was the richest race for 2-year-olds in American racing history.
To begin his 3-year-old campaign, Desert Wine won the Grade 3 San Rafael Stakes by 2 ¼ lengths as the 1.30-1 favorite. On the strength of that win, he was an overwhelming 7-10 favorite in a field of six for the San Felipe.
Chris McCarron sent Desert Wine out to the lead, but received constant pressure from longshot Easy Cash. Meanwhile, Bill Shoemaker kept second choice Naevus right off the battle then pounced when Easy Cash began to fade. The two favorites duked it down down the stretch, while Naevus began to drift out. Although Naevus crossed the finish line a head in front, the stewards posted inquiry the sign not long after the race.
After some deliberation, Naevus was disqualified from first and placed second. Desert Wine was put up as the winner, ensuring his status as California’s top Derby prospect.
Desert Wine’s star dimmed a bit in his next two races. He was sixth as the 9-10 Santa Anita Derby favorite, then was second in the Blue Grass Stakes. However, he redeemed himself in the Triple Crown, with runner-up finishes in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes. As a 4-year-old, he was even better, winning three Grade 1 races in California.
SUNDAY SILENCE (1989)
CAREER RECORD: 14 starts, 9 wins, 5 seconds, 0 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $4,968,554
Going into the 1989 San Felipe Handicap, Sunday Silence looked loaded with potential but hadn’t proven much on the track yet. He had never raced against stakes company, and had never gone beyond 6 ½ furlongs. In a first-level allowance race 17 days before the San Felipe, he won by 4 ½ lengths on a wet track. Off that race, he was the 8-5 second choice on the morning line for the San Felipe, and closed at 2.90-1. Music Merci, a three-time stakes winner, was the overwhelming 1-2 favorite.
After a rough break, Pat Valenzuela moved Sunday Silence into a stalking position, while longshot Yes I’m Blue opened up a long early lead. When that rival faded, both Sunday Silence and Music Merci made moves after the leader. While Music Merci fell flat, Sunday Silence kept going, and drew off to win by 1 ¾ lengths.
Despite that win, Sunday Silence wasn’t the favorite in the Santa Anita Derby. Houston, a promising colt from the D. Wayne Lukas barn, was 9-10, while Sunday Silence was 2.40-1. However, while Houston struggled, Sunday Silence rolled to an 11-length win, quashing all Californian doubters, and giving the top 3-year-old on the east coast, Easy Goer, a worthy rival.
As it turned out, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer would enter the history books intertwined. Sunday Silence beat him in the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes, but Easy Goer turned the tables in the Belmont Stakes. In their final meeting in the 1989 Breeders’ Cup Classic, Sunday Silence held off the frantic late rally of Easy Goer to win by three-quarters of a length and clinch Horse of the Year honors. He’s one of four horses to win the Kentucky Derby and the Breeders’ Cup Classic in the same year.
CAREER RECORD: 24 starts, 9 wins, 6 seconds, 2 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $3,185,610
By 1992, it had been exactly 30 years since a California-bred horse won the Kentucky Derby. Bertrando looked like a good bet to snap that drought going into the 1992 San Felipe. As a 2-year-old he won two graded stakes in California, and then was second to Arazi in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. For his 3-year-old debut in the San Felipe, he was the 2-5 favorite in the six-horse field.
He had to work hard, but Bertrando got the job done. Alex Solis, as usual, put him on the lead, and was forced to set brutal fractions while being hounded by Hickman Creek. Despite the pace pressure, Bertrando held sway in the stretch and won by three-quarters of a length while holding off a late rally from Arp.
This race set the stage for a Santa Anita Derby showdown with another promising 3-year-old in A.P. Indy. Bertrando was the 11-10 second choice while A.P. Indy went off as the 9-10 favorite. After Bertrando set the pace, A.P. Indy wore him down for a 1 ¾-length victory.
Unfortunately, Bertrando never got the chance to end the California-bred Derby drought. An illness sidelined him for the next eight months. He returned good as new at age 4 with three graded stakes wins. The headliner was a monstrous 13 ½-length win in the Woodward Stakes at Belmont Park, which earned him the status of Breeders’ Cup Classic favorite. He finished second in that race behind 133.60-1 longshot Arcangues.
CAREER RECORD: 25 starts, 7 wins, 9 seconds, 3 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $1,685,840
Although he would make the best use of it later in his career, Artax flashed plenty of speed on the 1998 Derby trail. In the Santa Catalina Stakes he set the early pace, held off pressure, and drew off to a 5 ½-length win. Off that performance, he was the 6-5 favorite in the San Felipe Stakes. He faced only four rivals, including an up-and-coming Bob Baffert trainee named Real Quiet. That colt went on to do great things, falling just a nose short of a Triple Crown victory in the Belmont Stakes.
On this day, however, Artax prevailed. Chris McCarron put him on the early lead, setting a fast opening quarter-mil of 22.80 seconds. Once McCarron established early position, he drastically slowed the tempo down. The half-mile split was 46.85 seconds, representing a second quarter in just 24.05 seconds. With that kind of pace advantage, Artax was able to hold on to the lead throughout. Although Real Quiet gave him a challenge late, Artax crossed the finish line a head in front.
That proved to be his last triumph around two turns. He was unable to get to the lead in either the Santa Anita Derby or the Kentucky Derby and turned in disappointing performances both times. After an uninspiring streak in California, Artax was sent east in March 1999 to the barn of trainer Louis Albertrani.
Under Albertrani’s care, Artax competed exclusively at shorter distances. The strategy worked brilliantly as he won four graded stakes in 1999 and finished second in four more. In the Carter Handicap, he set a seven-furlong track record at Aqueduct, covering the distance in 1:20.04. He concluded his season with a half-length score in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
FUSAICHI PEGASUS (2000)
CAREER RECORD: 9 starts, 6 wins, 2 seconds, 0 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $1,994,400
“FuPeg” made waves before he even raced. At the Keeneland July yearling sale in 1998, Japanese businessman Fusao Sekiguchi purchased him for an incredible $4 million. A son of Mr. Prospector out of a Danzig mare, FuPeg was bred for greatness.
A late-developing and rambunctious scort, FuPeg did not win his first race until Jan. 2 of his 3-year-old year, breaking his maiden by two lengths as the 1-5 favorite. After an allowance win he was made the 1.30-1 favorite in the seven-horse San Felipe field. Among his rivals were two-time stakes winner The Deputy, reigning Breeders’ Cup Juvenile champion Anees, and eventual Belmont Stakes winner Commendable.
Kent Desormeaux gave Fusaichi Pegasus a great trip in the San Felipe, patiently rating him off pace-setting Commendable. Commendable had opened up a two-length lead entering the stretch, but Desormeaux asked FuPeg to go and he easily went by the leader. He crossed the finish line three-quarters of a length in front, holding off the late rally of The Deputy.
After an impressive Wood Memorial win Fusaichi Pegasus was made the 2.30-1 favorite in the Kentucky Derby. He lived up to expectations, rallying from behind for a 1 ½-length win. He became the first favorite to win the Derby since Spectacular Bid in 1979.
He raced only three times after the Derby. Following a second-place finish as the 3-10 favorite in the Preakness Stakes, he disappeared until a win in the Jerome Handicap in September. He concluded his career with a sixth-place finish as the favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
POINT GIVEN (2001)
CAREER RECORD: 13 starts, 9 wins, 3 seconds, 0 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $3,968,500
Point Given had a strong 2-year-old campaign in 2000, establishing himself as the top Derby hopeful in Bob Baffert’s barn. He won two graded stakes races and finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Point Given did not make his 3-year-old debut until the March 17 San Felipe. He was backed as the overwhelming 2-5 favorite in the field of eight.
Breaking from the outside post, Gary Stevens rated Point Given in midpack early on while the pacesetters set very fast fractions. As they rounded the final turn, those three began to give way and Point Given launched a strong five-wide rally. By the time they hit the eighth pole, Point Given had opened up a comfortable margin, ultimately crossing the finish line 2 ¼ lengths in front.
After a dominant 5 ½-length Santa Anita Derby score, the Kentucky Derby looked like a coronation for Point Given. However, he was a disappointing fifth, beaten 11 ½ lengths by Monarchos, who finished in the second-fastest Derby time ever. For the rest of the year, Point Given was perfect. He swept his way through the rest of the Triple Crown, winning the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes by open lengths. He won the Haskell Invitational by half a length, then capped off a Horse of the Year season with a 3 ½-length Travers Stakes win.
PIONEEROF THE NILE (2009)
CAREER RECORD: 10 starts, 5 wins, 1 second, 1 third
CAREER EARNINGS: $1,634,200
Pioneerof the Nile entered the 2009 San Felipe as the top Derby prospect in California, if not the entire country. He won the CashCall Futurity at Hollywood Park and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita in his prior two starts. Bettors made him the consensus choice in the San Felipe as he left the gate as the 3-10 choice.
Second favorite New Bay opened up a clear early lead, while Garrett Gomez kept Pioneerof the Nile toward the back of the six-horse field in the first quarter. Sensing the slow pace developing in front of him, Gomez allowed Pioneerof the Nile to inch up toward the leaders. Just after the half-mile point, Pioneerof the Nile had moved alongside New Bay and continued to press turning for home. In the stretch, Gomez asked him to go and Pioneerof the Nile won by 1 ¼ lengths.
After a one-length win in the Santa Anita Derby, Pioneerof the Nile was the 6.30-1 third choice in the Kentucky Derby. He made what looked like a winning move on the far turn but managed no better than second behind the dramatic rally of longshot Mine That Bird. Pioneerof the Nile’s racing career ended following an 11th-place finish in the Preakness Stakes, but he made perhaps his biggest impact in the breeding shed. A son from his second crop, American Pharoah, went on to win the Triple Crown in 2015.
CALIFORNIA CHROME (2014)
CAREER RECORD: 27 starts, 16 wins, 4 seconds, 1 third
CAREER EARNINGS: $14,752,660
Entering the 2014 San Felipe, California Chrome was regarded as a colt with a lot of potential, but he hadn’t accomplished a lot against open company. He had won three stakes races against California-breds but had yet to win a graded stakes race. The San Felipe looked like it would be his class test and bettors made him a 7-5 favorite to pass it.
Victor Espinoza immediately put California Chrome on the lead and encountered pace pressure from second choice Midnight Hawk. That rival sent him through strong fractions, going through the opening quarter-mile in 23.09 seconds and a half-mile in 45.55 seconds.
As they rounded the final turn, California Chrome wasn’t showing signs of slowing down. In fact, he was opening up on Midnight Hawk, who had no response at all. In the final eighth of a mile, Espinoza geared him down and he crossed the finish line 7 ¼ lengths in front. This win instantly established him as one of the Derby favorites.
California Chrome continued to impress in the Santa Anita Derby, winning by 5 ¼ lengths. He was the 5-2 favorite for the Kentucky Derby and he won that as well, becoming the first California-bred to win the Derby since 1962. After his Preakness Stakes win, he was the 9-10 choice to win the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes. However, he finished fourth, defeated by 1 ¾ lengths by Tonalist.
After the Belmont, California Chrome continued to add to his résumé. He won six more graded stakes, including the 2016 Dubai World Cup. In 2014, he was third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and was second in that race in 2016. He was named Horse of the Year in both of those years, in spite of his Classic defeats. When he retired, he was the all-time earnings leader in American racing.
CAREER RECORD: 8 starts, 6 wins, 2 seconds, 0 thirds
CAREER EARNINGS: $7,201,200
Bob Baffert appeared loaded with Derby contenders on the 2020 Derby trail, and Authentic was one of them. Off a win in the Sham Stakes, he was the 6-5 favorite in the seven-horse San Felipe field. Among his rivals were stakes-winning stablemate Thousand Words and reigning TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Storm the Court.
There was little drama at any point in the contest. Drayden Van Dyke put Authentic on the early lead and never received any serious challenges for the top spot. Authentic won by 2 ¼ lengths, with Storm the Court third and Thousand Words a nonthreatening fourth. That win proved a harbinger of things to come.
With the Kentucky Derby postponed to September due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Authentic had more time to prepare for the big race. He took full advantage, winning the Haskell Invitational and finishing second in the Santa Anita Derby. In the Kentucky Derby, he scored a front-running upset win over heavy favorite Tiz the Law, then lost a dramatic stretch duel in the Preakness Stakes to Swiss Skydiver. Authentic capped off his Horse of the Year season with a 2 ¼ length win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, becoming the fourth horse to win both the Derby and the Classic in the same year.