Sham Begins California’s Kentucky Derby Trek

Sham-Stakes-OddsIf not for the great Secretariat, Sigmond Summer and Claiborne Farms’ Sham would have been the best 2-year-old of 1972 and best 3-year-old of 1973, thanks to his impressive California-based march toward the Kentucky Derby.

The nearly black son of Pretense and the Spinaway Stakes-winning Princequillo mare Sequoia won his first four races before running into trouble in his final three Derby preps, though he did finish in front of Secretariat the first time they met in the 1973 Wood Memorial.

Secretariat still holds the record for the fastest Derby in history and, in addition to being well-known as the horse to have finished closest to him in both the Derby and the Preakness, Sham ran what is likely the second-fastest Derby time in history. Secretariat logged the spectacular figure of 1:58.40 for the 10 furlongs and Monarchos posted the second-fastest time at the distance under the Twin Spires of 1:59.97, three one-hundredths of a tick slower than the 2:00 Northern Dancer posted in 1964. However, if going by the old rule of thumb that 1/5 of a second equals one length, then Sham’s 2 ½-length deficit to Secretariat in 1973 makes his final time 1:59.90, which is seven one hundredths faster than Monarchos. It’s a debate that will never be settled, but is certainly fun to participate in.

Sham went on to finish second in the Preakness and last in the Belmont Stakes, where he was injured. He then retired to Spendthrift Farm and subsequently moved to Walmac, where he’d spend the rest of his life before passing away from a heart attack in his stall at age 23 in 1993. He was a decent sire, but is known more as a top-notch broodmare sire.

In 2001, Santa Anita Park decided to honor 1973’s best colt from the West and that year’s Santa Anita Derby winner with his own race. Ever since then, the Sham Stakes (GIII) has served as Southern California’s first major Kentucky Derby prep of the new year and, in 2019, as in years past, the winner will collect 10 valuable points to make the gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May — points that could mean everything when the final 20 hopefuls are clamoring to get in the gate.

Though no Sham winner has ever made a substantial impact since its first running, the race continues to draw some of the better names during the early stages of the Triple Crown trail. And the race has certainly produced some good horses — like two-time Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) winner Goldencents, fellow Dirt Mile winner Tapizar and Travers (GI) winner Colonel John.

Hall of Famer Bob Baffert has sent out the winner of this race a leading five times — most recently a year ago with multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire McKinzie. This year, he will be represented by a pair of runners in Coliseum and Much Better. In fact, six of the seven entered will be saddled by just three trainers — Baffert, Keith Desormeaux and Peter Miller. Jerry Hollendorfer sends out the other runner.

Baffert’s top contender here is Godolphin’s homebred Coliseum, who broke his maiden in impressive fashion at Del Mar back in mid-November in his only start. Since then the gray son of Tapit has been working lights-out at Santa Anita and pedigree-wise figures to appreciate the added distance to a mile off his seven-furlong debut. Godolphin has tried to win the Derby their own way in the past to no avail; now, they’ve turned to the only living trainer to have won two Triple Crowns with a highly touted colt with bottomless potential. The downside will be his prohibitive odds; the upside is an exciting Triple Crown prospect.

Gunmetal Gray was a respectable fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (GI) in his last start two months ago, charging down the lane from well back early. The son of Exchange Rate was a nice second to division leader and Breeders’ Cup winner Game Winner in the American Pharoah Stakes (GI) in late September after breaking his maiden and posting big figures at Del Mar in his second career start back in August. His pedigree overall for a route is a question mark, but he’s in capable hands with Hollendorfer at the helm and new jockey Mike Smith aboard. With no Game Winner here, maybe he’s ready to pull off his first graded score.

The “other Baffert” in here is Three Chimneys’ Much Better, who broke his maiden on the main track before a second in the grassy Zuma Beach Stakes at Santa Anita back in early October. That led to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (GIT) and a really dismal last-place finish over a yielding surface, which clearly necessitated a return to the main track. The homebred son of Pioneerof the Nile has been firing a lot of bullets in the mornings and is clearly capable of getting the distance and probably farther. Regular jockey Drayden Van Dyke will be back aboard.

Gray Magician makes his second start for trainer Peter Miller and his first since breaking his maiden at this distance the last week of the Del Mar fall meet. The handsome son of Graydar has been working steadily at his home base of San Luis Rey Downs and, though he moves up in class, showed some decent improvement to break his maiden. Flavien Prat is back aboard.

Savagery, who broke his maiden wearing a $62,500 price tag at Del Mar back in August, is Miller’s other runner and the son of Bellamy Road needs to improve quite a bit off his fourth-place finish in the Los Al Futurity (GI) last out to be effective here. He was second to Mucho Gusto in the Bob Hope Stakes (GIII) at Del Mar two back, but the competition here isn’t getting any easier.

Former claimer Sueno is coming off a win over the all-weather surface at Golden Gate in the Gold Rush Stakes. He’s making a big jump up in class, but has Hall of Famer Kent Desormeaux aboard for his brother Keith. The innermost post isn’t great, but a good break and decent early position moves him up.

Easy Shot, who is also trained by Keith Desormeaux, makes a giant leap into stakes off a win for $80,000 at Del Mar a month ago.  It seems an ambitious spot, but his trainer has never been known to shy away from a challenge.

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