Gormley edges American Anthem (obscured) by a head in the Sham Stakes

Gormley edges American Anthem (obscured) by a head in the Sham Stakes

Benoit Photo

Gormley Edges American Anthem in Sham

Top two were 13 lengths clear of the rest of the field.

The first step on the 2017 Triple Crown trail in Southern California did not disappoint Jan. 7 at Santa Anita Park.

Reminiscent of several standout races during 2016 in the region, the $100,000 Sham Stakes (G3) stretch run featured two horses locked in a duel to the wire, well clear of the rest of the field.

Video: Sham S. (G3)

On Saturday it was Gormley  and American Anthem doing battle in the stretch. The top pair were never more than a length apart in the sloppy one-mile test, but it was Jerry and Ann Moss' Gormley who just outfinished his rival by a head at the wire.

Under the guidance of jockey Victor Espinoza, Gormley broke well from post 5 as American Anthem took the lead from the inside post under jockey Mike Smith. The John Shirreffs-trained Malibu Moon  colt was just a length off the leader exiting the turn, cut into the lead heading into the final bend, and moved alongside soon after.

Gormley appeared to put American Anthem away with a furlong to run and opened up a half-length advantage, but the Bob Baffert-trained Bodemeister  colt dug in again on the inside and just lost the photo.

"He's quick. He starts quick and he gets away quickly, but then he checks himself as he gets into the race and he relaxes," Shirreffs said. "It was great to see him pick it back up again and get it done."

Gormley is now in second position, behind Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Classic Empire , with 20 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Both of his stakes wins—the Sham and the FrontRunner (G1)—were worth 10 points apiece to the winner. He finished seventh in the Juvenile, which remains his only loss.

"It didn't surprise me how well he broke out of there today. When he's feeling good, he breaks quickly and is already running," Espinoza said of Gormley, who set the pace in the FrontRunner victory, but was caught wide in the Juvenile. "In the Breeders' Cup, he broke slow, but today he came into the race in really good shape and got into it right away."

American Anthem ran fractions of :22.54, :45.46, and 1:10.13 through six furlongs, and Smith felt the result may have been different if his colt had outside position, instead of being inside. Gormley finished off the mile in 1:35.89.

"For only his second time out, that was pretty impressive," Smith said of American Anthem, who won his six-furlong debut by a neck Dec. 3 at Del Mar. "If we'd been on the outside ... I think that probably would've helped a little bit getting beat a half a nose."

Big Hit came in third, 13 lengths behind the top two, followed by Bird Is the Word, Term of Art, and Colonel Samsen, to complete the order of finish.

Blabimir was eased in the stretch and did not finish. Trainer Doug O'Neill said after the race that Blabimir's jockey, Mario Gutierrez, said the Tapizar  colt "felt fine. He just didn't like the track."

Gormley, who was bred in Kentucky by Castleton Lyons and Kilboy Estate out of the Bernstein mare Race to Urga, now has $296,000 in earnings. He was a $150,000 RNA at the 2015 Keeneland September yearling sale.

"This type of thing never gets old," Jerry Moss said. "He's got a lot of heart and I know he'll go further than this. John's doing all the right things, as usual. This was a beautiful horse race and the fans got a thriller. No idea where we'll run next."