Over the past decade Steve Asmussen has been a dominating force in North America, especially at Churchill Downs where he has been the perennial leading trainer at the home of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I).
But other than the late-blooming Curlin, who jumped up to finish third in the 2007 Derby, Asmussen has not been a major factor in first leg of the Triple Crown. The 45–year-old trainer is hoping that will change this year and one of his promising sophomores will take his first step toward the roses when he leads a field of five in the $100,000 Sham Stakes (gr. III) Jan. 15 at Santa Anita Park.
Winchell Thoroughbreds’ Tapizar will be the likely favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Sham based off his dominating 10 1/2-length maiden victory in November at Churchill. After that score the son of Tapit was sent to California with Asmussen, who began a new experiment by taking a string of horses to Santa Anita for the first time. Tapizar has turned in a series of works there in preparation for the Sham, including a four-furlong move in :47 1/5 on Thursday, just two days before the race. In fact, that latest work was quicker than the connections were looking for.
"It was definately a little faster than we wanted," assistant Scott Blasi admitted. "That's just the way it went, but I will say he couldn't have done it any easier. I was hoping for about :50 personally, but I don't know what that would have looked like because he did so easily."
Blasi also said the recent rainy weather in Southern California played a role breezing the colt just a couple days before the race. He had been on a set work schedule every seven days for more than a month.
Tapizar, who is out of the Deputy Minister mare Winning Call, took a while to get going as a 2-year-old, losing three times before crushing maidens in the Nov. 27 race around two turns at Churchill. He earned a solid 89 Beyer Speed Figure for the win, significantly better than the 78 that Kentucky Jockey Club (gr. II) winner Santiva earned on the same day.
Shaun Bridgmohan rode Tapizar during his maiden score, but Garrett Gomez takes over for the Sham. They will break from post 4.
His main competition could come from another impressive maiden winner by Tapit, Uncle Sam. The bay ridgling is trained by Bob Baffert, who knows a thing or two about preparing horses for the Derby and is loaded with a number of good-looking prospects again this year. Baffert sent Uncle Sam out to a 2 3/4-length win in his Nov. 27 debut at Santa Anita. He rated just off the pace in the one-mile test before finishing up in a fast time of 1:36.28 under Rafael Bejarano.
Uncle Sam, a $210,000 yearling for Kaleem Shah, has worked once since his maiden victory. Baffert was not originally planning to run him in the Sham.
“I was looking for an allowance race for him but there wasn’t one,” he said. “I figured we’d take a chance (in the Sham) and see if he moves forward. He’s doing well and this is the next step.”
Baffert also considered running record-breaking maiden winner The Factor in the Sham but decided against it after the colt blitzed five furlongs in :58 flat last week.
“He got away,” Baffert said of The Factor. “We’re on operation slow down now. We’ll look for something in February but we want to go further with him.”
The lone entrant with stakes experience in the Sham is Clubhouse Ride, who was third in the Delta Downs Jackpot (gr. III) and CashCall Futurity to complete a juvenile campaign in which he started 10 times and won twice. The son of Candy Ride is trained by Craig Lewis and will be ridden by Pat Valenzuela.
Completing the field are Anthony's Cross, who defeated Tapizar in a Nov. 4 maiden special weight at Churchill, and Pride of Silver, who makes his dirt debut after a two-turn maiden win at Hollywood Park.
The Sham will be followed by the $250,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) at nine furlongs on Feb. 12.
$100,000 Sham Stakes (gr. III, Race 3, 1:31 p.m. PST), 3YO, 1 1/16 Miles, (dirt) PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer 1. Clubhouse Ride (KY), P A Valenzuela, 118, C A Lewis
2. Uncle Sam (KY), R Bejarano, 118, B Baffert
3. Anthony's Cross (PA), J Rosario, 118, E G Harty
4. Tapizar (KY), G K Gomez, 118, S M Asmussen
5. Pride of Silver (KY), V Espinoza, 118, R B Hess, Jr.