Santa Anita Derby a West Coast Showdown Between Veteran, Neophyte


Justify (photo by Jim Safford).

A field of seven sophomores, including a well-regarded seasoned veteran in Bolt D’Oro and a highly touted new shooter in Justify — both considered to be legitimate Kentucky Derby (GI) contenders — will head postward in the 82nd running of the Santa Anita Derby (GI) on Saturday, the final Kentucky Derby prep held at the Great Race Place in California.

In addition to proving he belongs among the best headed to Louisville, recent allowance winner Justify is pursing the 100 points the winner will receive for a Santa Anita Derby victory as he has yet to earn a single point to start, while grade 1 winner Bolt D’Oro, who is currently sitting fourth with 64, will actually make the gat, all things being equal, so adding points any is just icing on his already rose-covered cake.

The nine-furlong test, which has been carded as Saturday’s 9th race, will go off at 3:30 PT due to the first-race post time being moved up to 11:30 a.m. PT to accommodate the day’s 13-race card. This year rain is forecasted again, but hopefully it won’t start falling until at least post time or after. At least that’s what the weathermen and weatherladies are saying.

In 2014, two-time Horse of the Year California Chrome won Santa Anita’s top prep before wearing the garland of roses in Louisville. And in 2012 I’ll Have Another won, joining the list of winners that reads like the Hall of Fame plaque – A.P. Indy, Sunday Silence, Winning Colors, Affirmed, Majestic Prince and Swaps. Other names to have started in the nine-furlong test include board-hitters Pioneerof the Nile, Point Given and Free House, as well as off-the-board runners Silver Charm, Giacomo and many more. Exaggerator romped to a 6 ¼-length victory in the slop two years ago before finishing second in the Derby and capturing the Preakness Stakes (GI) and a year ago the race would be the last career win for the now-retired Gormley.

Ruis Racing’s grade 1 winner Bolt D’Oro, fresh off his victory (by DQ of now sidelined McKinzie) in the San Felipe Stakes (GII) a month ago, is back and arguably better than ever. After a rough winter that included a lengthy break for a pulled muscle and sincere doubt he’d make the Derby at all, he returned to show his raw talent last out with a head to head stretch battle at a fitness level his trainer, Mick Ruis, said was only “about 80 percent” losing by the smallest of heads. His numbers are strong overall, especially late pace, and he has some tactical turn of foot that Hall of Fame jockey Javier Castellano can use depending on how the pace sets up, though his ideal trip is probably just behind the frontrunners.

He’s no doubt fitter than his last, Castellano returning is an endorsement as he has other solid choices and this expensive son of Medaglia d’Oro has been training exceptionally well all month. Though not the morning line favorite, he’ll still be short-priced, so he’s probably not worth much in the straight wager department. He’s a tough, talented runner who doesn’t need to use all he’s got in his reserves to win.

China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners, Starlight Racing and WinStar Farm’s Justify has to win in order to make the Derby. He has no points. He’s battling the “curse of Apollo” and the “lightly raced” battle. However, what he does have may be enough to get the job done. He’s managed by the Triple Crown-winning Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. He has fellow Hall of Famer and Derby winner Mike Smith, who compared him to the great Hall of Famer Easy Goer, in the irons. He carries some of the most powerful and respected ownership group in the game today, who with horses already headed to the Derby tells us they they aren’t rolling the dice and hoping for the best. Everyone around the flashy chestnut legitimately believes he belongs in the Derby picture.

Why he got a late start isn’t important as he’s here now, pounding loudly on the door. His first two races were nothing short of brilliant and he’s also improved, which is impressive considering he earned a 100 BRISnet speed rating in his seven-furlong debut and followed it up with a 105 for his one-mile allowance win in the mud last out. The $500,000 son of Scat Daddy is certainly bred for the distance, so the extra furlong here shouldn’t be a big deal, and while so far he’s been a frontrunner, Smith is more than capable of being able to rate him if necessary should the early pace be too hot. The buzz about this colt has been increasing with each work, which have all been spectacular, and many have been overheard saying he could be the best of the crop. It seems like people either love him or dismiss him, but on Saturday we’ll all find out what he’s made of and if he belongs.

Oxo Equine’s Instilled Regard looked like another good one from the Jerry Hollendorfer barn after his troubled third (placed second after a rival’s DQ) in the Los Alamitos Futurity (GI) at the end of last year, and then followed it up with a dominant win in the LeComte Stakes (GIII) at Fair Grounds. Something went awry with the son of Arch in the Risen Star Stakes (GII) in his last start, which was partly a very wide trip, so his connections decided it was in his best interests to keep him home for his final Derby prep. He’s posted some strong figures overall, including a 100 BRISnet speed figure for his Los Alamitos Futurity performance, and has held steady in the upper 90s since, which is good enough to be effective here. He’s not exactly a morning glory, but he’s looked well and trained well since his last race seven weeks ago, and he gets the services of Joel Rosario for the first time. He’s a mid-pack type who will be moving late, but certainly has the talent. He absolutely needs the points to make the Derby and finish at least second as he only has 19, so expect a top effort.

Pepe Tono looked great breaking his maiden back in early January but hasn’t had a lot of luck in his two starts in graded stakes company in his two starts since. He’s a good horse, but probably not as good as the top runners here.

Core Beliefs makes his first start against maidens for the red-hot Pete Eurton barn and while he’s a good horse he seems a notch below the level he’d need to be to make a statement. Not saying that he doesn’t have a bright future, he’s just not really good enough yet.

Jimmy Chila is a maiden who has never finished better than third in four races and has picked a big spot to try to make the Derby.

The maiden Orbit Rain has to be a rabbit to try to soften up Justify on the lead, should he go there, and help Bolt D’Oro.