Santa Anita Derby appears to be a victim of its own success

Forbidden Kingdom, ridden by jockey Juan Hernandez, wins the Grade II San Felipe Stakes horse race on March 5 at Santa Anita.
Forbidden Kingdom, ridden by jockey Juan Hernandez, wins the Grade II San Felipe Stakes horse race on March 5 at Santa Anita. Forbidden Kingdom is the second favorite for Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby.
(Benoit Photo / Associated Press)

As horse racing enters its final weekend of major Kentucky Derby prep races, all eyes are on the Santa Anita Derby, with a look to both the quality and quantity of the field. It seems the race has become a victim of its own success.

There are two statistics that seem to be in conflict but are inexorably intertwined. Of the eight final win-and-you’re-in Kentucky Derby preps, the Santa Anita Derby, with six starters, stands out with the fewest number of entrants. The next lowest number is eight in Saturday’s Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. That’s a negative.

Yet the race also stands out for sending the horse that was pronounced the winner on race day in Louisville in five of the 10 previous years. That’s a positive.


“Field sizes in stakes are really different than field sizes up and down the card,” former longtime Santa Anita executive Alan Balch said. “One of the greatest Santa Anita Handicaps ever (1988) had four horses in it. And I remember some of the big shots on our board were horrified by this and [racing secretary] Mr. [Frank] Kilroe telling me they just don’t understand, you’ve got Alysheba, Ferdinand, Super Diamond and Judge Angelucci. Who is going to hook up with that group?”

Alysheba won the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Ferdinand was another former Kentucky Derby winner, Super Diamond was a winner of eight of his last 11 races, and Judge Angelucci a multiple stakes winner coming off a win in the San Antonio. Temperate Sil, who did not have those credentials, scratched before racing that day, proving the theory.

Balch, executive director of the California Thoroughbred Trainers, sees the same factors in play today.

White Abarrio’s win puts trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. in the Kentucky Derby. Secret Oath is third in Arkansas Derby and likely will run in the Kentucky Oaks.

“You have somewhat the similar situation with the Santa Anita Derby where you have monsters in here,” he said. “And this race has produced a lot of horses who have gone on to the Kentucky Derby and won the Derby, even if they didn’t win the Santa Anita Derby, like Ferdinand” in 1986.

Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby, part of a 12-race, seven-stakes card, has two “monsters” and one monster in waiting.

Messier is the even-money favorite by virtue of winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes by 15 lengths. He hasn’t raced since Feb. 6 and will be making his first start for Tim Yakteen after being moved from Bob Baffert’s barn so that the colt could earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points. Baffert is serving a 90-day suspension as the result of Medina Spirit’s positive test for an anti-inflammatory that’s not legal on race day. John Velazquez will ride Messier.

The 6-5 second choice is Forbidden Kingdom for trainer Richard Mandella and jockey Juan Hernandez. He won his last race, the San Felipe Stakes, by 5¾ lengths.

Tabia, at 4-1, is the unknown factor. He also moved to the Yakteen barn from the Baffert barn. The $1.7-million purchase, bought by Medina Spirit owner Amr Zedan, has run only one race, a maiden special he won by 7½ lengths. Mike Smith picks up the ride from Velazquez. First place is worth 100 points, second is 40 points and third is 20. Twenty points may not be enough to get into the Kentucky Derby unless several horses drop out.

Yakteen has a third horse in the race, Armagnac (20-1), who also came over from Baffert. The remaining two horses are trained by Doug O’Neill, Happy Jack (20-1) and Win the Day (20-1).

The Santa Anita Derby will be the sixth race. The accommodation was made so that it would be part of a national NBC telecast that also includes the Wood and Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland.

Trainer Bob Baffert was denied an emergency stay by the Kentucky Court of Appeals and already has begun to take down signage at his Santa Anita barn.

Despite his temporary absence, Baffert remains a dominant force in shaping Southern California racing and field sizes in major stakes races.

“There is definitely a Bob Baffert factor,” said Gary Fenton, chairman of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. “He’s always had a strong string of 3-year-olds and some always end up in the Santa Anita Derby. He’s actually got so many, he spreads them around because we are on an island. If you are on the Derby trail, and you are not an island, you have a bunch of different choices. That includes California, but if you know Bob is going to be there [with one of his best horses], it factors into your thinking and you go elsewhere.”

Chris Merz, Santa Anita’s director of racing, illustrated what the absence of a strong Baffert horse can mean and why field sizes are affected by his presence.

In 2017, “when I was stakes coordinator and Mastery was supposed to be the next coming of Secretariat,” he said, racing secretary “Rick Hammerle and I knew if that horse ran in the Santa Anita Derby, we would be lucky to get five horses. But, he was hurt after the San Felipe and the Santa Anita Derby was a 13-horse field.”

California is called an island because it is not easy to ship a horse to another major track. If you are on the East Coast, you can easily van horses up and down the seaboard. If you are in California, it almost always involves a plane, which is another issue.

Tex Sutton Equine Air Transportation has been the major carrier of horses but last spring needed a new lease on a dedicated transport plane and FAA approval. It is expected to resume its travel this summer. In the meantime, horses have been booked on FedEx planes, which is more expensive and less convenient.

“Tex Sutton is more flexible for timing,” Merz said. “They modify planes to make them more horse friendly. It’s tough with FedEx if you have a really high-strung horse because you can’t send your groom on that plane. We have lost horses coming into our stakes because they felt it would be too high risk without their groom on the plane. With Tex Sutton you can use your groom.”

There is little question the winner of Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby will be marked as the favorite to win the Kentucky Derby and there will be a plane ride involved.