Ten will head postward in the 80th running of the Santa Anita Derby (GI), which will go off at 6:30 EDT as the afternoon’s eighth race at Santa Anita Park on Saturday. For some strange reason, conventional wisdom has let the racing world believe that legit Kentucky Derby (GI) runners come from the East, when in fact California has produced some of the greatest to have ever gathered under the Twin Spires on the First Saturday in May.
In the spirit of “Just to Name a Few” we’ll start with Horse of the Year and North America’s leading earner California Chrome, who won Santa Anita’s top prep before wearing the garland of roses in 2014. And then there’s I’ll Have Another, A.P. Indy, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors, Affirmed, Majestic Prince and Swaps, along with board-hitters Pioneerof the Nile, Point Given and Free House. Even horses that competed in but didn’t win the Santa Derby — Silver Charm, Giacomo and many more — have gone on to pose for pictures in Louisville.
The Santa Anita Derby has always been a legitimate Kentucky Derby prep and the field assembled this year looks to have every opportunity to keep the race’s status as a top-class step for the Derby, despite what some people from the East have to say.
Unfortunately, the Albert Hammond song that tells us “It Never Rains in Southern California” isn’t going to be terribly accurate on Saturday as there’s a 90 percent chance for rain all day, so it’s a good bet to expect an off track come post time. While the weather in California isn’t as unpredictable as Kentucky in the fall, usually by mid-week if bad weather for the weekend is forecasted for the San Gabriel Mountain foothills, where Santa Anita is located, it’s a better bet to expect wet weather than it is to hit the pick six.
Danzing Candy posted a mild upset in the San Felipe Stakes (GII) last time out and, though a bit of a sleeper early on the Derby Trail, woke us all up with his two-length romp in the final Santa Anita Derby prep. He wasn’t exactly a rank outsider at 5-1 off two open-length wins in maiden and allowance company, but he wasn’t exactly a horse carrying a lot of buzz either. Veteran trainer Cliff Sise Jr. owns a strong reputation as a capable horseman on the circuit and has won his share of good races (he trained stakes winner Lucky Pulpit, who eventually sired California Chrome) and has a knack for bringing a good horse along slowly and to peak at the right time. Now is the right time for Danzing Candy and the front-running son of Twirling Candy figures strongly to repeat and pick up 100 more Derby points and head to Louisville as California’s top contender.
Mor Spirit is a bit of an enigma wrapped in a riddle. He’s never run a bad race and is a Grade I winner, having taken the Los Alamitos Futurity late last year, and then the Bob Lewis (GIII) in his first start of 2016 in February. But he’s become known for being a bit quirky and funny in his morning gallops, though aside from one high-profile aborted work, has actually performed well in the mornings and carries nothing but confidence from his Hall of Fame jockey, Gary Stevens. And nothing can be taken away from his reigning Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert, who doesn’t use a cookie-cutter training method and caters to each horse’s individual needs to be ready when they need to be. Mor Spirit’s only off-track effort was a runner-up finish to the once-hot Airoforce. Nobody would be surprised if he took home the win here from his preferred spot stalking the early pace.
Smokey Image went into the San Felipe undefeated, with five of his six wins by open lengths, albeit versus restricted California-bred company. He got a taste of what it meant to be in the big leagues and earned a respectable fifth-place finish and also a wake-up call as to what it will take to play in open company. Trainer Carla Gaines is no slouch and has a solid reputation for sending horses to the gate she thinks will win, so this is no Hail Mary attempt at a Derby runner. And it’s hard to argue with Victor Espinoza’s decision to stay with this one for this race, as he’s a hot commodity jockey who wins big races and could probably pick just about any in the field he’d want to ride. He’s got a versatile running style, is capable of setting the pace or close into one, something that can only help his chances here.
It’s almost easy to feel sorry for Exaggerator. Once among the top of his crop after winning the Saratoga Special (GII), the Delta Jackpot (GIII) and posting strong showings in a couple other graded stakes as a juvenile, growing up hasn’t been as easy for the talented son of Curlin. He’s run well, but hasn’t reached the winner’s circle in his two starts as a sophomore. This will be his third start off his brief winter vacation and a lot of smart handicappers believe that the third start off a layoff, no matter how long, makes all the difference. He will need to be at his best and adapt his style to be either a part of the predicted quick pace or sit just off it, but it would not be a shock if he wins for the brothers Desormeaux and head to Louisville as a threat to take home the roses.
Minor stakes winners Iron Rob and Dressed in Hermes are really stepping up and maiden winners Uncle Lino, Rare Candy and Denman’s Call will have their work cut out for them, but there’s always a reason races are run before we hand out the winner’s trophy.