The loss of grade I winner Georgie Boy, the San Felipe (gr. II) victor who was forced out of the Santa Anita Derby line-up with a pulled muscle, no doubt helped increase the size of this year's field. But the public figures to be concentrating on the quickly developing Colonel John, 2-1 on the early line, and El Gato Malo, listed at odds of 5-2.
Colonel John and El Gato Malo are in the top 10 of virtually every prognostication for next month's Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Colonel John, a bay colt by Tiznow owned and bred by WinStar Farm and trained by Eoin Harty, had the benefit of a better trip when he defeated El Gato Malo by a half-length in the Sham Stakes (gr. III) March 1. In the Sham, run at the same distance as the Santa Anita Derby, El Gato Malo was trapped on the inside, delaying his rally just enough that he came up short in a game stretch effort.
West Point Thoroughbred's El Gato Malo, a gelding by El Corredor trained by Craig Dollase, gets off the inside this time, drawing post 8 with David Flores aboard. Colonel John, reunited with regular rider Corey Nakatani, starts from gate 5. Nakatani missed the Sham with a broken collarbone and Garrett Gomez had the mount.
The Sham is Colonel John's only prior start this year. But Harty says Colonel John is maturing rapidly for a possible date with destiny. After spending a week in Dubai with Well Armed for the World Cup, the trainer said he was surprised by the change in the colt's appearance and demeanor.
"He's getting stronger and mentally more mature every day," said Harty, a former assistant to Bob Baffert who started his own stable in 2000. "I got back (from Dubai) and he's matured again, mentally. Everything seems to be happening at the right time with this horse. I couldn't be happier."
Harty has been around several Derby horses, including the winners Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998). Colonel John shares some of their qualities, the trainer believes.
"Absolutely," Harty said, "he reminds me of them. I'm not predicting a win in the Kentucky Derby, but I know my horse will be competitive on Derby Day. I've known that from day one. He's always struck me as a horse that will have a credible race."
Harty noted that neither Silver Charm nor Real Quiet won the Santa Anita Derby on their way to Louisville, but both ran competitively in defeat. Visually, Colonel John is similar to Real Quiet.
"He's a leggy, light -framed individual kind of like Real Quiet," Harty said.
Colonel John has never been worse than second in five starts that include three victories and earnings of $375,300. As a 2-year-old he ran second to Into Mischief in the CashCall (formerly Hollywood) Futurity (gr. I) and was a powerful three-length winner of the Real Quiet Stakes.
Speaking of powerful, El Gato Malo won his first three lifetime starts prior to the Sham by a combined margin of 16 lengths. He captured the one-mile San Rafael Stakes (gr. III) with a devastating kick by more than six lengths in January. The dark bay has banked $200,200 in his brief career.
Dollase believes that with a little more luck, El Gato Malo can turn tables on Colonel John.
"We didn't get the right trip last time, but he almost overcame the trip he got," Dollase said. "But he got a lot out of that race. it was a good learning experience."
The Santa Anita Derby, which has produced 35 Triple Crown winners, including 15 in the Kentucky Derby, could have its biggest field since 13 ran in 1981. The race anchors of an 11-race program that includes three other graded stakes races.
Georgie Boy’s late defection helped influence an 11th-hour decision to enter Bob Black Jack who had been preparing for the Arkansas Derby (gr. II). Bob Black Jack, trained by Jim Kasparoff, is 6-1 on the morning line.
Attempting a route of ground for the first time after five sprints, Bob Black Jack set much of the pace in the March 15 San Felipe before fading to third, 1 3/4 lengths behind Georgie Boy in a game try. Purchased for $4,500 as a yearling by Jeff Harmon and Tim Kasparoff, the California-bred son of Stormy Jack has earned $292,925 from three wins in six starts. With regular rider David Flores committed to El Gato Malo, recent George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award winner Richard Migliore takes over. They'll break from gate 4.
Yankee Bravo (4-1), a son of Yankee Gentleman , ran third to early Kentucky Derby favorite Pyro in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II) at the Fair Grounds on March 8.
“Each time he’s run, he’s finished well,” trainer Paddy Gallagher said of Yankee Bravo, a $17,000 partnership purchase who has won three of four while earning $202,049.
Asked if Yankee Bravo seemed ready to compete against the West Coast’s premier 3-year-olds, a confident veteran jockey Alex Solis replied, “I think the other ones should worry about whether they’re ready to compete with him.”
$750,000 Santa Anita Derby (gr. I, Race 6, 2:30 p.m.), 3-Year-olds, 1 1/8 Miles (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Jockey, ML Odds
1. Yankee Bravo (KY), Alex O. Solis, 4/1
2. Signature Move (KY), Michael C. Baze, 30/1
3. Coast Guard (KY), Joseph Talamo, 20/1
4. Bob Black Jack (CA), Richard Migliore, 6/1
5. Colonel John (KY), Corey S. Nakatani, 2/1
6. On the Virg (KY), Tyler Baze, 15/1
7. Shore Do (KY), Chantal Sutherland, 20/1
8. El Gato Malo (KY), David R. Flores, 5/2
9. Polonius (FL), Victor Espinoza, 10/1
10. Meetingwithdestiny (KY), Joel Rosario, 30/1
11. Rosso Corsa (CA), Alonso Quinonez, 50/1
Each assigned 122 pounds.