Gormley (outside) and American Anthem (inside) finish a head apart in the Sham Stakes

Gormley (outside) and American Anthem (inside) finish a head apart in the Sham Stakes

Benoit Photo

Thirteen Enter Up-For-Grabs Santa Anita Derby

Trainers see opportunity in the absence of undefeated Mastery.

If there are no scratches in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (G1) April 8, the 13-horse field entering the gate will be the largest since 1981 for the West Coast's top Triple Crown prep race.

The reason for the large field is simple. If Mastery  hadn't sustained a condylar fracture moments after his romp in the March 11 San Felipe Stakes (G2), the undefeated Bob Baffert trainee surely would be the commanding favorite facing a short field (see Dortmund  in 2015). But with the injury, the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (G1) trail on the West Coast has changed entirely, and that was reflected in the Santa Anita Derby entry box.

"All season long it's been hard for (3-year-old horses) to put a couple races together, so everybody views it as an opportunity," said trainer John Shirreffs, who will send out both grade 1 winner Gormley  and grade 3 victor Royal Mo.

Shirreffs isn't the only trainer with multiple entrants—Baffert (three) and Doug O'Neill (four) have more—but his two horses fit his own definition. Both are owned by Jerry and Ann Moss and both have had at least one moment of high quality and at least one that didn't measure up.

For Gormley, it's happened twice. The Malibu Moon  colt broke through with a three-length win in the Oct. 1 FrontRunner (G1), then didn't fire in the Sentinent Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), where he finished 16 1/4 lengths back in seventh. In the new year, he fired fresh to edge fellow Santa Anita Derby entrant American Anthem in the Sham (G3), then came back to finish fourth, 9 3/4 lengths back in the San Felipe.

BALAN: Gormley Edges American Anthem in Sham

In both wins Gormley has had things relatively his own way, either on the lead or just off, but Shirreffs "feels strongly" he'll be most successful with a stalk-and-pounce approach.

"Gormley hasn't developed a style yet," the trainer said. "That's the big thing. In the mornings, he's shown he has a late kick. He's won on or close to the lead, but I don't think that's his best style."

Royal Mo hit the road for the Rebel (G2) after his Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) victory, but finished an unthreatening ninth at Oaklawn Park and Shirreffs opted to keep the Uncle Mo  colt home.

"I didn't feel like sending him again and it just seems like the best thing to keep him home," he said. "It seemed like he wasn't handling (the surface) very well, but in the mornings he was."

The comforts of home have also drawn O'Neill's quartet, which includes one that has already tried unsuccessfully to win out of town. Reddam Racing's So Conflated put himself into the conversation with a win in the California Derby on Golden Gate Fields' synthetic main track Jan. 21, but finished sixth in his only Kentucky Derby points race March 4 in the Gotham (G3) at Aqueduct Racetrack, where he came in 22 1/4 lengths behind winner J Boys Echo.

The other O'Neill starters have been homebodies, including Kaleem Shah's 7-2 morning-line favorite Iliad. O'Neill admits, at least in part, that the assigned favoritism has been by default. With no high-profile horses shipping in to challenge at Santa Anita Park, the logical favorite would figure to be the horse that got closest to Mastery in the San Felipe.

BALAN: Iliad Records Final Santa Anita Derby Workout

"If Mastery was in the race, he'd be the favorite, so because Iliad ran second, he's the logical favorite, and I think he's a legitimate favorite," O'Neill said. "In this scenario, if you had two horses who had to have the lead, it might be a tough spot for me, but they're all individuals and all have their own way of going.

"The fact that the race is void of a super favorite, it's in your own back yard, it offers a lot of Derby points and a big purse—that all goes into it."

Rounding out the O'Neill crew is off-the-turf Cecil B. DeMille (G3) winner Term of Art, who finished third in the San Felipe, and Milton Freewater, a Creative Cause  colt who earned placings in a trio of 2016 California-bred stakes.

Baffert's contingent includes American Anthem, who finished 10th in the Rebel after his game Sham performance against Gormley, and a pair exiting a key March 9 allowance won by fellow Santa Anita Derby entrant Battle of Midway .

The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Battle of Midway just edged Baffert-trained Reach the World in that 1 1/16-mile test, and both are scheduled to take the step up to grade 1 competition Saturday, as well as the fifth-place finisher in that race, Irish Freedom.

Rounding out the field is grade 1-placed Midnight Pleasure, who finished third in his 3-year-old debut, a 6 1/2-furlong allowance at Santa Anita; impressive last-out maiden winner (4 1/2 lengths) Kimbear; and last-out maiden winner on turf Comma Sister.

Entries: Santa Anita Derby (G1)

Santa Anita Park, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 8

  • Grade I
  • 1 1/8m
  • Dirt
  • $1,000,000
  • 3 yo
  • 4:12 PM (local)
PPHorseJockeyWgtTrainerM/L
11Term of Art (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateTyler Baze124Doug F. O'Neill12/1
22Reach the World (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateMike E. Smith124Bob Baffert5/1
33Battle of Midway (KY)Corey S. Nakatani124Jerry Hollendorfer5/1
44Comma Sister (KY)Israel Ocampo124George Papaprodromou50/1
55So Conflated (FL)Keeneland Sales GraduateMario Gutierrez124Doug F. O'Neill15/1
66American Anthem (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateMartin Garcia124Bob Baffert5/1
77Kimbear (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJoseph Talamo124J. Eric Kruljac12/1
88Gormley (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateVictor Espinoza124John A. Shirreffs9/2
99Iliad (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateFlavien Prat124Doug F. O'Neill7/2
1010Milton Freewater (CA)Tiago Josue Pereira124Doug F. O'Neill30/1
1111Irish Freedom (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateRafael Bejarano124Bob Baffert20/1
1212Midnight Pleasure (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateJamie Theriot124Mick Ruis30/1
1313Royal Mo (KY)Keeneland Sales GraduateGary L. Stevens124John A. Shirreffs10/1