Shagaf: Kentucky Derby Contender or Pretender

Shagaf - Photo Credit: Leslie Martin
Leslie Martin

Every year a horse like Shagaf pops up on the Kentucky Derby trail. Young, talented, lightly tested and most importantly completely polarizing to all handicapping pundits. Last year the Todd Pletcher trained Materiality was a horse that kind of fit the same bill as Shagaf. The lightly raced son of Afleet Alex burst onto the scene with impressive maiden and allowance scores before winning the Florida Derby over Upstart. Materiality went on to finish decently in the Kentucky Derby before completely bombing in the Belmont Stake and was never heard from again. That pattern is consistent with a lot of Todd Pletcher 3-year-old runners. But lucky for Shagaf, his trainer is not Todd Pletcher.

Chad Brown is a house hold name in horse racing, and widely known as one of the best trainers in the game. He’s no stranger to big time stakes victories. BUT he’s also known for training turf superstars. In fact, this year is the first time in his successful career that he’s ever had a serious Kentucky Derby prospect. Many will be skeptical of Chad Brown’s ability to train a dirt horse, however, I’m certainly not one of those people. There is simply no doubt in my mind Brown can train any type of horse, and probably can do it just as well, if not better, than the top Triple Crown trainers in the country. For whatever reason he hasn’t had the chance to prove this with a 3-year-old colt, but he did win a major Grade 1 race on the dirt in last year’s Breeders’ Cup when Wavell Avenue cruised home to win the Filly & Mare Sprint.

Having the right trainer on the road to the Kentucky Derby is half the battle, but the biggest part of the equation is obviously the horse. Here lies my biggest problem. I simply don’t think Shagaf is overly talented. Lets review his maiden score first which was a dominating 6 length victory going one mile at Aqueduct. The race was visually very impressive, however his competition that day was subpar at best. The second place horse was It’s All Relevant who did come back to win a maiden next time out which is a positive, however, in his next start he was a well beaten eighth in the Risen Star Stakes last weekend. What about the remaining eight horses that finished behind him? Only ONE of the eight have even come back to hit the board, and that one horse did it in a maiden claiming race! Not a steller group of horses in my humble opinion.

Even with the evidence of him beating a poor field in his maiden race I was still very excited for his next race at Gulfstream Park. It was an allowance field with another impressive maiden winner in Rally Cry as his main rival. Let’s watch the replay of this one:

As you can see from the replay it was a decent performance. However, would you call this a dominating type of win? My answer to that question is no, and in fact, I don’t think he would have beaten the winner if the #2 horse, Rally Cry, would have gotten through on the rail. Nonetheless, Shagaf looked pretty solid in mid-stretch as it appeared he was really going to roll, but it was very concerning to me to see him struggle home a bit. The jockey had to urge and whip him within the last 100 yards of the race, and the troubled Rally Cry as well as the second place finisher Southside Warrior seemed to be gaining on him late. You might be able to chalk some of this up to immaturity or needing the race after a little layoff. Each of those excuses could be valid. However, I believe it’s more of Shagaf just being “good” and not “great.”

Because of the aforementioned I was confident in my low ranking of Shagaf. That is until I read an article from my favorite writer, and for my money the best handicapper in the country, Jon White. White revealed his Top 10 Kentucky Derby horses and of course SHAGAF was number one on his list. This immediately sent me into panic mode. I respect Jon’s opinion more than any other handicapper in the game. Only once have I had a very strong opinion against Jon. That time was the 2015 Breeders’ Cup Classic where he told me just a few days before the race (also the first time I had ever met him) that he really liked Bayern in the Classic. I was very polite about his opinion to his face, but in the back of my mind I was saying to myself “no well in hell Bayern is winning that race.” I left Bayern off of everything that day as I ignored Jon’s opinion. Not the smartest move I’ve ever made as Bayern wired the field giving Bob Baffert his first Breeders’ Cup Classic win. Score: Jon White – 1, Racing Dudes – a big fat goose egg.

We’ll find out soon enough about Shagaf as it looks as though he’s targeting the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct for his first race against stakes company. Once again I’m opposed to Jon White. Only this time I’m more nervous about it since the last debacle of mine. In the end you have to go with your gut on these types of issues, and my gut tells me Shagaf is not a great horse. I sure hope my gut doesn’t make me look so foolish this time around.

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