Taking a ‘Wait and See’ Approach with Derby Prospect Life Is Good

Life Is Good improved to 2-for-2 in his career with a three-quarter length win in the Jan. 2 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Making the Grade, which will run through the 2021 Triple Crown races, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could make an impact on the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey), and pedigree.

This week we profile Life Is Good, winner of the $100,000 Sham Stakes on Jan. 2 at Santa Anita Park.

life is good

Bay Colt

Sire (Father): Into Mischief

Dam (Mother): Beach Walk, by Distorted Humor

Trainer: Bob Baffert

Owners: CHC Inc. and WinStar Farm

Breeders: Gary and Mary West (Ky.)

When Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert unveils a debut runner, rarely do they fly under the radar and Life Is Good was no exception as he won his first start as a highly regarded 1-5 favorite on Nov. 22, 2020, at Del Mar. Let’s take a closer look at this exciting Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve prospect.

Ability: Life Is Good lived up to, and perhaps exceeded, sky-high expectations in his career debut when he led from start to finish in a 6 ½-furlong race in November at Del Mar, surging away to win by 9 ½ lengths under Mike Smith.

Baffert clearly had another promising prospect, and the speed figures indicated he might be a special one: 106 Equibase Speed Figure, 90 Beyer Speed Figure, 100 BrisNet speed rating, 122 TimeForm US rating.

The simple takeaway: he’s fast.

Stretching out in distance to a two-turn mile and facing stakes competition for the first time in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes Jan. 2 was a legitimate test. But again, Life Is Good was sent off at 1-5 odds so it was an exam he was expected to ace.

Life Is Good appeared to be in complete control in the Sham and headed to a dominant win, but he either lost focus in the stretch or tired late as a four-length advantage diminished to a winning margin of three-quarters of a length over stablemate Medina Spirit.

After the race, Smith was asked about the late scare after a final quarter-mile in 25.97 seconds and the final eighth in 13.39 seconds.

“Just as we were heading toward home, he was doing things all by himself so easy out there,” Smith said. “He didn’t know what he was doing going twice around, and he just got the lead and was looking out at the infield on the big screen he could see himself, and he got to looking, but I was watching as well so I saw the horse coming on the outside.

“What I liked really was after the race, when I stood up and the horse got next to me he jumped back in the bridle and I mean I had to pull him up.”

That sounds like a reasonable explanation and Smith, of course, would not want to undermine the performance, but it also is very possible Life Is Good got a little gassed with the extra distance. He should continue to build his foundation with additional races and improve his stamina, but it’s not unfair to wonder if Life Is Good might have some distance limitations.

The speed figures again were strong and paint the picture of an elite prospect, improving to a 112 Equibase Speed Figure, 101 Beyer figure, 120 TimeForm US rating. His BrisNet speed rating dipped two points to a 98.

The potential is there for Life Is Good to become the favorite for the 2021 Kentucky Derby, and in fact he probably rates as such in the eyes of many. I can understand the comparisons to Authentic (same sire, trainer, similar path), but I prefer to reserve judgement until I see Life Is Good against significantly better competition at a longer distance.

Running style: In each of his two races to date, Life Is Good has opened a clear early lead and set an uncontested pace. It will be interesting to see how he responds to competition when he is challenged early, but over the last seven years early speed has been extremely effective in the Kentucky Derby. Country House won as a closer via disqualification in 2019, but each of the last seven horses to cross the finish line first in the Derby was third or better after the opening quarter-mile.

Connections: CHC Inc. (China Horse Club) and WinStar Farm co-own Life Is Good, a $525,000 purchase at the 2019 Keeneland September yearling sale. Both owners have been prominent on the Kentucky Derby trail in recent years and were part-owners of 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify.

Owned and co-founded by Kenny Troutt, WinStar bred 2020 Preakness Stakes winner Swiss Skydiver and 2003 dual classic winner Funny Cide and has won a pair of Eclipse Awards: outstanding owner in 2010 and outstanding breeder in 2016. WinStar won the 2010 Kentucky Derby with Super Saver and 2010 Belmont Stakes with Drosselmeyer, who in 2011 won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. WinStar added a win in the Belmont Stakes in 2016 with Creator.

Bob Baffert is a four-time Eclipse Award winner as outstanding trainer who was inducted into the Racing Hall of Fame in 2009. He has won 16 Triple Crown races (six Kentucky Derbys) throughout his career, including Triple Crown sweeps by American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.

Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith has been aboard Life Is Good for each of his two starts. The two-time Eclipse Award winner (1993, 1994) guided Justify to his Triple Crown sweep in 2018 among seven career victories in Triple Crown races. He also won the 2005 Kentucky Derby on Giacomo.

Pedigree: Life Is Good is by 2020 leading sire Into Mischief, whose more than $22 million in progeny earnings last year was nearly double the total of second-place finisher Tapit ($11.8 million). Into Mischief’s roster of top progeny based on 2020 earnings was led by Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Authentic.

While Into Mischief has sired quite a few runners who enjoyed success on the Triple Crown trail in recent years, it’s fair to say there was reasonable doubt about his ability to sire an elite runner at 1 ¼ miles before Authentic. For example, his progeny included 2013 Santa Anita Derby winner Goldencents, 2013 Gotham Stakes winner Vyjack, and 2017 Blue Grass Stakes runner-up Practical Joke, all three were probably best in one-turn races up to a mile. Of course, 2014 Louisiana Derby winner Vicar’s in Trouble, 2018 Xpressbet Florida Derby winner Audible, and 2019 Preakness third-place finisher Owendale offered plenty of reason for hope, however quite a few of Into Mischief’s best runners were sprinters, such as 2019 champion female sprinter Covfefe and Grade 1 winner Mia Mischief.

Smith and Life Is Good after the Sham. (BENOIT photo)

From nine crops age 3 and older Into Mischief is proven as a sire capable of elite runners, but Authentic, who also won the Grade 1 TVG.com Haskell Stakes and Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes, significantly bolstered his résumé as a Derby sire.

Life Is Good is out of the Distorted Humor mare Beach Walk, who was winless in five starts at distances ranging from three-quarters of a mile to a mile while running in the top three in four sprints. His grandam (maternal grandmother), Bonnie Blue Flag, by Mineshaft, was a stakes-winning sprinter who ran second in the Grade 1 Test Stakes at seven-eighths of a mile.

Life Is Good’s third dam (maternal great-grandmother), Tap Your Feet, by Dixieland Band, won the Illini Princess Stakes at 1 1/16 miles and was a winner of three races at distances ranging from one mile to 1 1/8 miles. Tap Your Feet produced two-time Grade 1-winning miler Diamondrella among three stakes winners.

Although Authentic’s 2020 campaign eases some of my stamina concerns with Life Is Good, I’m still somewhat skeptical of his chances to excel at 1 ¼ miles based upon pedigree combined with how he finished in the Sham. He’s clearly an elite talent, but I’ll wait to see how he fares at 1 1/16 miles and 1 1/8 miles before I consider Life Is Good as my leading Derby contender.

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