If they hadn’t run the Florida Derby (g.r 1) last weekend, this Santa Anita Derby (gr. 1) would not look as enticing as perhaps it is now. But they did run the Florida Derby, and three of the four most promising contenders on the east coast threw in clunker efforts in Gulfstream Park’s marquee event and main prep race for the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. The highly regarded To Honor and Serve ran an exhausting looking third, Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. 2) winner Soldat was even further back in fifth while Gotham Stakes (gr. 2) winner Stay Thirsty finished seventh.
Take nothing away from Florida Derby winner Dialed In and long shot runner-up Shackleford. They both ran very nice races that will garner attention from punters on Kentucky Derby Day. But even with the defection from the Santa Anita Derby by morning line favorite Premier Pegasus, there remains several horses with the potential to put forth better efforts than To Honor and Serve and his also ran compadres in Florida.
Ironically Jaycito, who inherits the early favoritism in the Santa Anita Derby when Premier Pegasus was scratched, has a resume eerily similar to that of To Honor and Serve before the Florida Derby. Both were highly regarded early this year based on their success as two-year-olds. Both also had disappointing debuts. Jaycito was beaten by nearly eight lengths by Premier Pegasus in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. 2) at Santa Anita on Mar. 12. To Honor and Serve was third, beaten nearly seven lengths by Soldat in the Fountain of Youth Stakes Feb. 26.
Jaycito will need to show marked improvement Saturday in the 1-1/8 mile Santa Anita Derby in order to be among the serious in the Kentucky Derby May 7. The late running son of Victory Gallup will also need an honest pace in the early stages of the Santa Anita Derby in order to maximize his running style.
There is also the pair of Silver Medallion (photo left) and Anthony’s Cross, two winners of graded stakes on the west coast early in the Kentucky Derby prep season. Silver Medallion won the El Camino Real Derby (gr. 3) at Golden Gate Fields way back on Feb. 12. Anthony’s Cross took the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. 2) on the same day at Santa Anita. Ironically, neither has started since. But Anthony’s Cross trainer Eoin Harty has watched his son of Indian Charlie put in a couple of bullet morning works since. Silver Medallion trainer, Steve Asmussen, has been more conservative with his Derby prospect in the mornings, but that should not reflect too much on his potential in the Santa Anita Derby. Certainly Asmussen has a penchant for timing his horses' training with their optimum races.
Trainer John Shirreffs of Zenyata fame, has a newcomer to stakes competition in the Santa Anita Derby in Mr. Commons. After finishing sixth in his first start at Hollywood Park, Mr. Commons seemed to excel on the Santa Anita turf, breaking his maiden by five and-a-half lengths in January. Shirreffs then tried his son of Artie Schiller on the main track and he defeated allowance colts at one mile.
Comma to the Top may be another to watch for the Santa Anita Derby. After winning five consecutive races from October to December including the CashCall Futurity (gr. 1) at Hollywood Park, he was among the highest regarded in his three-year-old class. But a fourth-place finish behind Silver Medallion in the El Camino Real and a similarly disappointing fourth in the San Felipe behind winner Premier Pegasus, and Comma to the Top was pushed off most lists of serious Kentucky Derby contenders. Among those lists were those held by trainer Peter Miller and owners Gary Barber, Roger Birnbaum, and Kevin Tsujihara. They have said they have decided not to take their colt to Kentucky. Perhaps a big race in the Santa Anita Derby will change that.
No matter which horses go on to Kentucky after the Santa Anita Derby, two big doors have opened for all those hoping to make a Run for the Roses. Last week three top Kentucky Derby contenders put in less that impressive performances in the Florida Derby while locally, morning line favorite Premier Pegasus was scratched from the Santa Anita Derby with a fracture to his left cannon bone. Say nothing of the $1 million purse that offers $600,000 to the winner and $200,000 to second. All personal accounting aside, those checks each appear to have enough graded stakes earnings to qualify the recipient for the Kentucky Derby.
The question now is: Who will take those opportunities to capitalize and walk through the door at Santa Anita that leads to Churchill Downs.