It’s not often that a $1-million horse race is viewed as part of the undercard. But Saturday that’s what the Santa Anita Handicap has become.
In what has been called the best Kentucky Derby prep race so far this year, the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes will feature two horses that should easily make the Derby field and one that has state breeders hoping for the next California Chrome.
Trying to live up to the rags-to-riches story of the California-bred Chrome has fallen on the shoulders of Carla Gaines, trainer of undefeated Smokey Image.
When it comes to the Kentucky Derby, Cal breds are generally viewed as second-class citizens. But Chrome won the California Derby — as did Smokey Image — and then followed it with a win in the San Felipe, before going on to win the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness.
Is Gaines growing weary of hearing about this repeat dream scenario?
“Pretty much,” she said. “It’s so unfair to compare horses because of their ‘meager’ beginnings. I think a lot of people are comparing the two, but not necessarily me. But let’s hope they are right.”
This will be Smokey Image’s seventh race, but first against non-Cal breds.
“For all these horses, this will be their toughest challenge,” said Bob Baffert, trainer of San Felipe favorite Mor Spirit. “This is where it really starts to happen.”
Mor Spirit has won two straight graded stakes in easy fashion and has three wins and two seconds in five starts.
The horse has developed a reputation for not really wanting to do things for practice. Jockey Gary Stevens called off a workout when the colt just wouldn’t cooperate.
“That’s just him,” Baffert said. “He’s been outworked by average horses in the morning. The clockers say he can’t beat anyone. But when he gets in the gate he gets pumped up. He’s a lot like [former Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner] Silver Charm. He wants to run on race day.”
Another San Felipe favorite, Exaggerator, looks good both in workouts and on race day. The winner of three of seven lifetime starts, he is coming off a second-place finish to Derby co-favorite Nyquist in a near-record time over seven furlongs. Nyquist has been shipped to Gulfstream for the April 2 Florida Derby and the possibility of a $1-million bonus.
“I think Exaggerator is an exceptional talent and can win this race without a doubt,” said trainer Keith Desormeaux. “I’m hoping my horse will relax.
“He’s high-strung, he’s excitable, he wants to go fast all the time. But he’ll do real well if he can just listen to my brother [jockey Kent Desormeaux].”
Danzing Candy is another horse that probably will receive some support Saturday. He has won his last two races by a total of nine lengths. He will be ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith in what will be the horse’s first graded stakes.
The fact that the San Felipe (seventh race) has overshadowed the Santa Anita Handicap (10th race) is a combination of two things: two of the better older horses — California Chrome and Hoppertunity — being shipped to run in Dubai, and heightened interest in the road to the Kentucky Derby.
“The success of horses coming out of Southern California and going into the Triple Crown races is phenomenal,” Desormeaux said. “Nice horses are sent out here because it’s the proving ground for great horses.”
The favorite in this year’s Big ‘Cap is Effinex, runner-up to American Pharoah in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Imperative, second to Hoppertunity in the San Antonio, and Donworth, who finished third in that race after a long layoff, are also in the race.
The San Felipe is 1 1/16 miles, or 3/16ths shorter than the Kentucky Derby. The next step will be the April 9 Santa Anita Derby, or an equivalent, where the horses stretch out to 1 1/8 miles.
All the trainers “are hoping for the same thing: When they turn for home they want to see their horse running,” Baffert said. “We want to see what they are made of. The reality of the Derby dream is just starting to settle in.”
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