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.
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."
"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.
"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.
Santa Anita Park, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 8
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Term of Art (KY) Tyler Baze 124 Doug F. O'Neill 12/1 2 2Reach the World (KY) Mike E. Smith 124 Bob Baffert 5/1 3 3Battle of Midway (KY) Corey S. Nakatani 124 Jerry Hollendorfer 5/1 4 4Comma Sister (KY) Israel Ocampo 124 George Papaprodromou 50/1 5 5So Conflated (FL) Mario Gutierrez 124 Doug F. O'Neill 15/1 6 6American Anthem (KY) Martin Garcia 124 Bob Baffert 5/1 7 7Kimbear (KY) Joseph Talamo 124 J. Eric Kruljac 12/1 8 8Gormley (KY) Victor Espinoza 124 John A. Shirreffs 9/2 9 9Iliad (KY) Flavien Prat 124 Doug F. O'Neill 7/2 10 10Milton Freewater (CA) Tiago Josue Pereira 124 Doug F. O'Neill 30/1 11 11Irish Freedom (KY) Rafael Bejarano 124 Bob Baffert 20/1 12 12Midnight Pleasure (KY) Jamie Theriot 124 Mick Ruis 30/1 13 13Royal Mo (KY) Gary L. Stevens 124 John A. Shirreffs 10/1
Santa Anita Park, Saturday, April 08, 2017, Race 8