Horse racing newsletter: New leader in Kentucky Derby rankings

The starting gate at Santa Anita.
(Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

Hello, my name is John Cherwa and welcome back to our horse racing newsletter as we’re getting closer to Santa Anita re-opening to fans.

Let’s get right to it.

Jon White’s Kentucky Derby rankings

Jon White is back with his Triple Crown rankings. Jon is one of the foremost historians on horse racing as well as being the morning-line maker at Santa Anita and Del Mar. He even has done stints as a steward. He does it all. So, let’s get right to it with his Kentucky Derby rankings and new horse on top, brought courtesy of Take it away, Jon.

“We have a new leader.

“After Life Is Good won Santa Anita’s San Felipe Stakes in splendid isolation last Saturday as a 1-2 favorite, he takes over the top spot in this newsletter’s Kentucky Derby rankings.

“Life Is Good now is undefeated in three career starts and a two-time stakes winner.

“Right from the start, Life Is Good opened a clear lead before reaching the first turn in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. With Mike Smith in the saddle, the Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt clicked off fractions of :22.63, :46.83 and 1:10.55 for six furlongs. Later in the afternoon, the six-furlong fraction in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap was 1:12.26.


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“In terms of how he travels, Life Is Good is poetry in motion. While running fast, he does so smoothly, effortlessly. As Smith puts it, Life Is Good has a high cruising speed. Borrowing from the expression made famous by boxing great Muhammad Ali, Smith has said that Life Is Good ‘floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee.’

“After passing the quarter pole, Life Is Good came up with what amounted to a knockout punch. He drew off from his six opponents and won by eight lengths. Medina Spirit finished second, while Dream Shake came in third.

Bob Baffert trains both Life Is Good and Medina Spirit. The two colts had finished one-two in Santa Anita’s one-mile Sham Stakes on Jan. 2. In between the Sham and San Felipe, Medina Spirit won Santa Anita’s 1 1/16-mile Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Jan. 30.

“In the final furlong of the San Felipe, Life Is Good drifted all the way out to the middle of the track. As an indication of just how dominant Life Is Good was, Smith speculated that if the colt had not drifted out, he might have won by 15 lengths.

“According to Smith, the big screen in the infield was to blame. Smith said that Life Is Good was looking at it even before the race when they were approaching the starting gate, then again during the stretch run. Smith went on to say that Life is Good has never reacted to the big screen when training because it is not on in the morning.


“Among those who wonder if the big screen actually was why Life Is Good drifted out is ex-jockey Richard Migliore, now a horse racing analyst for Fox Sports. Migliore said that if the big screen indeed was what caused it, then why did Life Is Good continue to drift out well after he had gone past the big screen?

“As for Baffert, he has attributed Life Is Good’s behavior during the stretch run of the San Felipe to nothing more than inexperience. After all, this is a 3-year-old who has raced only three times.

“Baffert points out that Authentic similarly was very green early on in his career. That did not keep Authentic from winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic during the second half of 2020.

“It is to Life Is Good’s credit that he has run quite a bit faster than Authentic in terms of their first two stakes victories.

“When Authentic won the 2020 Sham, he registered a final time of 1:37.57. Life Is Good was 1:36.63.

“When Authentic won last year’s San Felipe, his final time was 1:43.56. Life is Good went in 1:42.18.


“Next for Life Is Good, according to Baffert, is Santa Anita’s 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on April 3.

“After winning the San Felipe in such a lopsided manner, Life Is Good was bet down to 2-1 favoritism in the Kentucky Derby Future Wager that closed last Sunday. Essential Quality was the 5-1 second choice, followed by Greatest Honour at 6-1.

“Essential Quality, trained by Brad Cox, is undefeated in four career starts. Winner of last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and voted a 2020 Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male, the Kentucky-bred Tapit colt kicked off his 2021 campaign with a 4 1/4-length victory in Oaklawn Park’s 1 1/16-mile Southwest Stakes, which was contested on a sloppy track Feb. 27.

“Essential Quality will make his next start in Keeneland’s 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass Stakes on April 3, according to Cox. In light of Essential Quality’s two-for-two record at Keeneland, it was widely expected the Blue Grass would be his final start before the 147th running of the $3 million Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs on May 1.

“Cox also trains Caddo River, who competes Saturday in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn. The 1 1/16-mile Rebel has attracted three 3-year-olds who have a spot in this newsletter’s current Kentucky Derby rankings: No. 4 Caddo River, No. 6 Concert Tour and No. 9 Keepmeinmind.

“Caddo River is the 9-5 morning-line favorite. The 2-1 second choice in the field of eight is the Baffert-trained Southern California shipper Concert Tour. Keepmeinmind is listed at 4-1.


“After finishing second in his first two career starts, Caddo River won a one-mile maiden race by 9 1/2 lengths at Churchill on Nov. 15. The Kentucky-bred Hard Spun colt then crushed his foes when he won Oaklawn’s one-mile Smarty Jones Stakes by 10 1/4 lengths on Jan. 22.

“Concert Tour goes into the Rebel quite similarly to Nadal last year. Nadal won a Santa Anita maiden sprint at first asking in January, then was victorious in the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes at that track in February before winning the Rebel.

“After Concert Tour won a maiden sprint at first asking this year on Jan. 15 at Santa Anita, the Kentucky-bred Street Sense colt was victorious in the San Vicente and now runs in the Rebel.

“Baffert also has sent Hozier to Oaklawn for the Rebel. The Kentucky-bred Pioneerof the Nile colt finished fourth (14 lengths behind the victorious Concert Tour) when unveiled at Santa Anita on Jan. 15, then showed dramatic improvement to win a 1 1/16-mile race there on Feb. 15. Pioneerof the Nile is the sire of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Baffert trained Pioneerof the Nile and American Pharoah.

“Speaking of American Pharoah, a half-brother to him by the name of Triple Tap makes his first career start in Santa Anita’s second race Saturday. Baffert (who else?) trains Triple Tap.

“Roman Centurian exits the Top 10 this week after he finished fourth in the San Felipe, 13 1/2 lengths behind Life Is Good.


“New to the rankings this week is the Baffert-trained Spielberg, who probably ran his best race yet to finish second despite a poor start in the recent Southwest Stakes.

“The addition of Spielberg now means that four of the 3-year-olds on this newsletter’s Top 10 are trained by Baffert, while three are conditioned by Cox (Essential Quality, Caddo River and Mandaloun).

“Here are this week’s Kentucky Derby rankings, courtesy of Xpressbet:

1. Life Is Good (2)

2. Essential Quality (1)

3. Greatest Honour (3)

4. Caddo River (4)

5. Mandaloun (5)

6. Concert Tour (6)

7. Medina Spirit (7)

8. Hot Rod Charlie (8)

9. Keepmeinmind (9)

10. Spielberg (NR)

NOTE: Last week’s rankings in parentheses”

Santa Anita preview

Nothing official, but with L.A. County allowing restricted indoor dining as soon as one more threshold is met, possibly by this weekend, you should expect that Santa Anita will be given the green-light to open. More details as they become available.

As for Friday, the thing that strikes you about the eight-race card is that the field sizes are pretty strong for a weekday. There are five races for fillies and mares and four races on the turf (the odd numbered ones). Three of the races are of the allowance variety and two are maiden specials. Post is the usual 12:30 p.m.

The feature, I think is the third an allowance/optional claimer for fillies and mares going a mile on the turf for a $65,000 purse. In fact, five of the eight races have a purse of more than $60,000. Laura’s Light is the 5-2 favorite for trainer Peter Miller and jockey Abel Cedillo. She has won five-of-eight lifetime but has been off since a sixth-place finish as the favorite in the Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 22. Prior, she won a Grade 2 and Grade 3. The second favorite, at 3-1, is On Mars for Phil D’Amato and Mike Smith. She took six tries to break her maiden and was second in an allowance/optional claimer last out. She has only one ungraded stakes in her past, a fourth. Post is around 1:35 p.m.

Here are the field sizes, in order: 8, 9, 9, 7, 8, 7, 8, 8.

Ciaran Thornton’s SA pick of the day

THIRD RACE: No. 2 Ippodamia’s Girl (8-1)

Ippodamia’s Girl makes her first start since November, 2019, for trainer Richard Baltas and Flavien Prat is enticed to ride. He is winning 30% for Baltas. ‘Girl was racing in graded stakes before hitting the bench so Friday could be a prep race. 8-1 with this tandem that has gone 3-1-2 from the last six races is too good a price to ignore even with this risk of an exercise ride.


Sunday’s result: Capital Heat sat perfect off the leader and into the stretch looked ready to pounce but the horse had nothing in the tank and faded. I remarked how the distance could be an issue and it was. Perhaps a cutback to 5 ½-6 furlongs next out would be better.

Ciaran Thornton is the handicapper for, which offers daily full card picks, longshots of the day, best bets of the day.

Los Alamitos weekend preview

Los Alamitos is the only game in town at night. So, let’s turn things over to marketing and media guru Orlando Gutierrez. Orlando, the floor is yours.

“Wild Cat Canyon has a difficult task of facing Zimba Warrior and Shark Cat when he goes after his third straight win in Friday’s featured $16,000 allowance on Friday night at Los Alamitos. Seven races are on tap starting at 6 p.m.

“Winless in his first 17 career starts, the 5-year-old horse had a bit of a renaissance this year at Los Alamitos. He earned his maiden victory in style, winning by seven lengths on Jan. 22, before returning with a hard-fought 1 3/4 length conditioned allowance win on Feb. 13. Juan Sanchez, who has ridden him to victory both times, gets the return call. His main opponent is Zimba Warrior, who competed in the Alcatraz Stakes at Golden Gate before winning at Del Mar last summer. He was second here on Feb. 14 and then ran at Santa Anita on Feb. 28. Craig Dollase trains the 4-year-old gelding.

“On Saturday night, a pair of allowance events for quarter horses head the seven-race program, beginning at 6 p.m. Chika Blazin has four solid performances to begin her racing career at Los Alamitos. Her efforts have included a third in Los Alamitos Maiden Stakes trial and most recently a third in her first start in an allowance. She will test that level again for a $12,000 purse.

“The co-main event has a purse of $13,500 and is for 3 and up quarter horses non-winners of three races. That group includes the 8-year-old vet Sepertist Dash, who posted an impressive second in his Grade 1 Brad McKinzie Winter Championship trial two races back. He finished last in the final, but that came against the best older horses on the grounds. He figures to enjoy the class relief here.

Jesus Rios Ayala, who has been the leading quarter-horse rider the past four years, is hoping to return in time of the trials to the Robert Adair Kindergarten Futurity on April 25. Rios Ayala has not ridden since injuring his right foot and knee when his mount became fractious in the starting gate before a trial to the Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity on Nov. 22. Rios Ayala required foot surgery and injured both the posterior cruciate ligament and anterior cruciate ligament of his right knee.


Kellie McDaid is ending her riding comeback for now. She retired from riding after finishing as the leading thoroughbred rider at Los Alamitos in 2018. She made eight starts in 2019, did not ride at all in 2020 before returning with a victorious ride aboard Shake N Fries on Jan. 9. She will continue to work as an exercise rider at Los Alamitos.

“I love my gallop job,” McDaid said. “I love the horses … but I’m at a point in my life where I need a new challenge.”

“McDaid won seven races from 40 starts this year.

Henry Reynoso Lopez has been the hottest rider at Los Alamitos the past two racing weekends, winning six of his 16 mounts. The 19-year-old Reynoso Lopez rides both quarter horses and thoroughbreds here.

“There were some outstanding performances last weekend in the trials to the $427,500 Los Alamitos Oaks and $225,200 El Primero Del Año Derby. Apollitical Patty won her Oaks trial in arguably the most impressive sophomore debut ever by a Los Alamitos Two Million Futurity winner. She won her trial by 3 ½ lengths with the fastest qualifying time to the March 27 final. Her margin of victory was the largest ever by a Million winner in his or her next start following the rich futurity. Constituent cruised to a 1 ½-length win with the fastest time to the El Primero for colts and geldings on March 28.”

Chris Wade’s LA pick of the day

FOURTH RACE: No. 4 Eyez Of Cartel (5-1)

She had some troubled journeys, but has also moved forward in each subsequent start on my speed comparison figures for a barn that’s going great guns over the past 30 nights of racing (44% win ratio) from limited staters. In her most recent effort 20 nights ago, Eyez Of Cartel got fractious in the gate prior to breaking slow and getting bumped on both sides. She lost over a length of ground and her early racing momentum. She was eventually able to put forth a solid mid-race run, garnering a menacing position only to have to take up nearing the wire while in close quarters. Still, she finished a quality fourth only beaten a half-length at the finish despite all the troubled she faced. Even with a little trouble at the start, I think she can be a big threat if she avoids trouble everywhere else after leaving the gate.

A final thought

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And now here’s the star of the show, Friday’s entries.

Santa Anita Entries for Friday, March 12.

Santa Anita, Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, California. 36th day of a 81-day meet.


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $36,000. Claiming. Fillies and Mares. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Prices $25,000-$22,500.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Tizno's DilemmaJose Valdivia, Jr.122Andreas Psarras10-125,000
2HurleyJessica Pyfer115Eddie Truman8-125,000
3SugaryKent Desormeaux122Martin F. Jones5-222,500
4Miss Flawless Tyler Baze120Leonard Powell15-122,500
5CharetteHeriberto Figueroa122Carlo Vaccarezza6-125,000
6Clearly GoneFlavien Prat122Peter Miller2-125,000
7Wind Tartare Alexis Centeno113Vann Belvoir20-122,500
8SherilindaEswan Flores120George Papaprodromou30-122,500
9Little Bird Juan Hernandez122Richard Baltas4-125,000


1 Mile. Purse: $22,000. Maiden Claiming. 3 year olds and up. Claiming Price $20,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1PaisanoJessica Pyfer111Robert B. Hess, Jr.15-120,000
2Tiger's SongTiago Pereira126Alfredo P. Marquez7-220,000
3LandaaEmily Ellingwood116George Papaprodromou50-120,000
4Twirling DerbyGeovanni Franco126Ruben Gomez5-120,000
5Lord VaderTyler Baze126Andreas Psarras8-120,000
6Dr. HoffmanFlavien Prat126Peter Miller4-520,000
7Mongol AltaiAlexis Centeno119Enebish Ganbat6-120,000
8Derby WarBrandon Boulanger126Ruben Gomez30-120,000


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $65,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. Fillies and Mares. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Price $62,500.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1On MarsMike Smith124Philip D'Amato3-1
2Ippodamia's GirlFlavien Prat124Richard Baltas8-1
3Neige Blanche Jose Valdivia, Jr.124Leonard Powell6-1
4Laura's LightAbel Cedillo124Peter Miller5-2
5Moonhall Milly Eswan Flores122Leonard Powell5-1
6Catch the EyeRuben Fuentes122David E. Hofmans12-1
7Miss BiglyRicardo Gonzalez124Philip D'Amato15-1
8She's Our CharmJuan Hernandez124Ronald L. McAnally6-1
9Trickle InTyler Baze124Dan Blacker12-1


5½ Furlongs. Purse: $61,000. Maiden Special Weight. Fillies and Mares. 3 year olds and up.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1ReemAbel Cedillo126Bob Baffert5-2
2Shell ShockHeriberto Figueroa126Carlo Vaccarezza5-1
3RattrapanteTyler Baze126John W. Sadler8-1
4Mongolian PantherEdwin Maldonado126Enebish Ganbat5-1
5River GirlJessica Pyfer119Hector O. Palma10-1
6Wild RideGeovanni Franco126Ruben Gomez30-1
7Missy P.Flavien Prat118Richard E. Mandella6-5


1 Mile Turf. Purse: $63,000. Allowance. 4 year olds and up. State bred.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1George Herman RuthAbel Cedillo124Philip D'Amato6-1
2It's FittingGeovanni Franco124James M. Cassidy8-1
3TizhotndustyJessica Pyfer117J. Eric Kruljac8-1
4One Fast BroJuan Hernandez124Shelbe Ruis5-1
5KakistocracyTyler Baze124Carla Gaines6-1
6Hammering LemonMario Gutierrez124Leandro Mora4-1
7Burnin TurfFlavien Prat124Dan Blacker9-5
8Crooked Finger RayJose Valdivia, Jr.124Mike Puype12-1


7 Furlongs. Purse: $36,000. Claiming. Fillies and Mares. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Prices $35,000-$30,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Miss AlegriaJuan Hernandez124Victor L. Garcia2-135,000
2Blazing CharmAlexis Centeno113Thomas Ray Bell, II8-130,000
3Rather NosyFlavien Prat124Mike Puype5-235,000
4Flat Out JoyJose Valdivia, Jr.124Ronald W. Ellis4-135,000
5Ballet de CourAbel Cedillo118Dan Blacker8-1
6Saving SophieEmily Ellingwood110Ryan Hanson6-130,000
7Dim LightsJessica Pyfer113Steven Miyadi8-130,000


1¼ Mile Turf. Purse: $61,000. Maiden Special Weight. Fillies and Mares. 3 year olds and up.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Witch MoonJuan Hernandez126Philip D'Amato3-1
2Midnight DivaAbel Cedillo118Michael W. McCarthy5-1
3Lady CrockerMike Smith126Carla Gaines4-1
4AristeiaEswan Flores126Jay Nehf30-1
5LakayaEdwin Maldonado126Robert B. Hess, Jr.15-1
6In the WindAlexis Centeno111Carlo Vaccarezza20-1
7I'll Do It for YouKent Desormeaux126Quentin B. Miller5-1
8Disappearing ActFlavien Prat126Richard Baltas8-5


6 Furlongs. Purse: $63,000. Allowance Optional Claiming. 4 year olds and up. Claiming Price $40,000.

PPHorseJockeyWtTrainerM-LClaim $
1Took ChargeFlavien Prat124Peter Miller5-1
2Canadian PrideAbel Cedillo124Peter Eurton3-1
3Single Me OutGeovanni Franco124Gary Stute12-140,000
4I Will NotMario Gutierrez124Leandro Mora6-1
5AdareMike Smith124Neil D. Drysdale5-2
6DeuceEdwin Maldonado124David E. Hofmans20-1
7HowbeitJuan Hernandez124Mark Glatt6-1
8Colt FictionTiago Pereira124William Spawr4-1