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The 2019 Kentucky Derby Trail officially kicks off in Southern California this weekend with the Grade 3, $100,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. Set as the ninth contest on a 10-race card, the Sham offers 10 Kentucky Derby points to the winner, 4 for second, 2 for third, and 1 for fourth. As always, trainer Bob Baffert is loaded with juveniles, most of which will be prominent in California. He won last year’s Sham Stakes with McKinzie, then later won the Santa Anita Derby with eventual Triple Crown winner Justify.
This year, Baffert brings two into the race, with the headliner being the Godolphin homebred Coliseum. Godolphin sent horses to Baffert for the first time ever this season, with hopes of finally getting the legendary owner its first Kentucky Derby victory. Coliseum has lived up to the billing of being a future star from day one, including proving his worth on debut in a crushing maiden special weight victory at Del Mar.
His main competition has an experience edge over him, though. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Gunmetal Gray will look to bounce back in a big way after finishing fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The son of Exchange Rate was second to Game Winner the last time that he raced at Santa Anita in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes. Today, Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith takes over the reigns for the first time when his mount breaks from post 6.
The Sham carries a local post time of 4:00 PM PT. From the rail out, the full field includes Sueno, Gray Magician, Savagery, Easy Shot, Coliseum, Gunmetal Gray, and Much Better.
#5 Coliseum – Is this Baffert’s next big star? He already has two solid Kentucky Derby horses in Improbable and Game Winner, but this one might not be too far behind. His debut maiden win at Del Mar was as easy as it comes, winning by nearly 7 lengths in wire-to-wire fashion. The Sham almost immediately became his next planned start, and he has trained beautifully leading up to it. He did show a bit of greenness in his debut effort, which is the only question mark for him coming into this event, but his inexperience is likely to be trumped by his talent. Expect the rich to get richer in this race.
#6 Gunmetal Gray – His connections are hoping that his experience pays off in a big way. Coliseum’s upside potential looks to be large, but he will have to contend with Gunmetal Gray, who has already competed in two stakes races. His first attempt came in the Grade 1 American Pharaoh Stakes, where he was second to the eventual Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Game Winner. He was then just an average fifth in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, where he seemed to spin his wheels for most of the stretch. He should be ready for an improved effort while also getting Smith to ride for the first time, and while that’s a good sign, will it be enough to outdo the Baffert monster?
#2 Gray Magician – This race seems extremely top-heavy, with these three top horses likely being the race’s top three finishers. Gray Magician moved to the barn of Peter Miller for the fall/winter meet at Del Mar and flourished in his first start, winning a maiden special weight by over 9 lengths while stretching out for the first time. After a win like that as a 2-year-old, the Kentucky Derby Trail is almost always the next step. The competition gets much tougher for him here, though.
#3 Savagery – There is no question that the ceiling for this horse is to hit the board. He has been able to do so in two of his last three races, all of which came against stakes company. Last time out, he was fourth in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, where he was beaten 11 lengths by the talented Improbable. This field is very similar in competition, which is not good for his chances to win, but he still can come in underneath at a price.
#7 Much Better – The “other Baffert” can jump up and get you from time to time, and that is what this horse will attempt. His stablemate is getting all of the hype and this horse is not even getting mentioned. Much Better has some solid experience under his belt, including running in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. He switches back to the dirt here, a surface where he won his only race – a maiden special weight at Del Mar on debut. This switch in surface will help, and it’s a good sign that Drayden Van Dyke will continue to ride.
#1 Sueno – This is the better of the two Keith Desormeaux-trained entries, but there is still much to prove for Sueno, who is only a maiden claiming winner when running on the dirt. He did win a stakes at Golden Gate Fields last time out on synthetic; however, there are much better horses in this race.
#4 Easy Shot – The other Desormeaux runner will go straight from a maiden claiming victory at Del Mar to the Kentucky Derby Trail. That seems like quite the jump up in class, and if you also consider that he’s going to run around two turns for the first time, then this one is a hard pass.
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