The path to the Santa Anita Derby continues this weekend in California with the 9-furlong Sham Stakes. A competitive field of 10 meets the starter and though the race is lacking any true star power, the winner is sure to have a say in the meet’s Grade I centerpiece in April. Let’s take a look.
Santa Anita: The Grade III, $1500 Sham Stakes at 1 1/8 miles.
1. The Program: One of the few two-time winners in the field drew the fence and should show some speed from the opening bell. Enters off a two-turn win over allowance foes and it’s worth noting that both lifetime scores have come over the surface. With his draw and early foot, he should be mixing it up early–just not sure he’ll be around late; seems destined to be a pace casualty.
2. Kettle River: Rumored to be a good thing on the Saratoga backstretch last summer, but it took a synthetic surface and two-turn assignment to really come to the forefront. While he enters off a brief respite, there’s a lot to like about a runner who has two wins from three lifetime starts and a stalk-and-pounce style that auguts well in this spot; the Hat Trick seems well within reach.
3. Straightomidnight: The last of the two-time winners has the speed to be a pace player, but doesn’t look fleet enough to make the point. Enters off some nondescript runs against weaker and had to dip into the maiden-claiming ranks to get the job done earlier in the year; deserving longshot.
4. Outlaw Man: McPeek runner enters off a maiden score at the distance over the local turf course, but we know that turf can compare favorably to a synthetic surface, so it wouldn’t be wise to overlook this colt. Has a nice stalking gear that should have him in the first flight and taking aim at the leaders on the far turn. Always tough taking on winners for the first time, but in reality this GIII isn’t much more than an entry-level allowance; interesting at a nice price.
5. Setsuko: Mandella has been talking favorably about this well-bred colt and for good reason, as he’s done little wrong in two starts since the hood went on. Got a nice trial run over the course and distance last time when he was forced to rally into pedestrian splits in an optional claimer, and the pace should be much hotter than the 49 1/5 half-mile they posted that day. Improving and in expert hands and looks ready for a breakthrough performance; leaning this way for win honors.
6. Wolf Tail: O’Neill charge is versatile and now switches back to the two-turn game after rallying late sprinting. Steps out of the state-bred ranks for the first time and while we’ve mentioned that this spot didn’t come up too tough, it surely is a lot saltier than what he’s been meeting. Respect the barn but this colt might be biting off a bit more than he can chew at this stage of the game; outsider.
7. Viva Macho: Still a maiden from eight career starts, but trainer Cho has hit the board in major stakes before with this kind of move. Still, not only has this gelding yet to win, he’s yet to even threaten in any of his races, so even a minor award looks out of reach; hard to endorse.
8. El Mirage King: Flew home down the hill to break his maiden in start number two, and after a short freshening he’s back trying winners and two turns for the first time. There’s talent here to be sure, but the hurdles are pretty substantial, especially when you see his trainer is 0-for-23 on the fake stuff. Eligible to show some early foot off those two sprint tries but the engine seems like a pretty crowded car in this spot; can’t see him threatening.
9. Alphie’s Bet: Got the job done going a mile on the turf last time, but his lone two-turn start was a big closing second in a state-bred stakes here on Opening Day. Sure, the water gets deeper here, but he was still a maiden when he flew home to start the meet and that is his only two-turn start on a synthetic surface, so on the face of it, you’ve got something to work with. He’s not the most talented or accomplished runner on paper, but if they go crazy early he has a big chance to rally into the picture at a nice number; the price will be right.
10. Nextdoorneighbor: Recent maiden winner got no favors from the draw, but he seems to have enough speed to ensure that he’s not too wide entering the clubhouse turn. Sure took to the two-turn game last time, and a repeat of that convincing 4-length score over the course would certainly land him in the mix. Machowsky is going great guns and he seems to have an improving runner who looms a major player from on or just off the pace; can’t fault those looking this way.
2. Kettle River
9. Alphie’s Bet
Check out Brian’s handicapping for NYRA races at horseplayernow.com. He’ll be participating in “Countdown to the Crown” live chats every Friday at 2 pm, accessible from the main page of the site, chatting for an hour about anything and everything for three year olds.