June 23, 2024

The start of the West Coast path to the Kentucky Derby starts Saturday at Santa Anita Park with the running of the Grade 1 $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes. But, the new question facing the business is do the races for 2-year-olds mean as much as they used to?

There was a time when conditioning a horse meant getting a good foundation under them by running them a lot before the Triple Crown series. Not so much anymore.

“Horsemen are circling the first Saturday in May and then working backwards and figure out the least number of races that it takes to get them there,” said Rick Hammerle, a consultant for 1/ST Racing who was the racing secretary at Santa Anita for 16 years. “It’s really up to what the individual team is looking to do with a horse.

“If you start a horse in July as a 2-year-old, you might be aiming them for stakes races in the fall [such as the American Pharoah]. If you are going for success, winning a Grade 1 as a 2-year-old can mean a lot to a horse.”

Grade 1 wins are almost a prerequisite to a career as a stallion, so if you get that out of the way early, you are ahead of the game.

“History lately has shown that if you start a horse later, they run longer,” Hammerle said. “And if you have that success early, sometimes they retire early. If you win a couple of graded stakes, maybe that’s enough. It all depends on what the owners want out of a horse.”

The American Pharoah, named for the first winner of the Triple Crown in 38 years, won the 2014 race, then named the FrontRunner, after one of the restraunts at Santa Anita. The next year it was won by Nyquist, who went on to win the Kentucky Derby.

Lately, winning this race has not been a harbinger of success. Last year’s winner, Cave Rock, finished second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as the favorite and never raced again. He was euthanized after developing laminitis following surgery in August. The 2021 winner, Corniche, went on to win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and ran only one more race before being retired to stud. He never ran a Triple Crown race.

The American Pharoah is one of three Kentucky Derby points qualifying races on Saturday. There is also the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland in Kentucky and the Champagne at Aqueduct in New York. The point system awards 10 points to the winner and then drops off to 5-3-2-1 for the next four spots. Generally, it takes around 40 points to make it to the starting gate at Churchill Downs. But realistically, if a horse gets all its points early and none later, when the races are worth more, then they are likely not in good enough running form to enter in the Derby.

Saturday’s race has eight projected starters although missing will be the 2-year-old currently thought to be Bob Baffert’s best. He had considered entering Prince of Monaco in the American Pharoah but decided he wanted to go to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 3 with a “fresh” horse. Prince of Monaco is undefeated in three races including the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity.

Baffert has won this race 11 times including four of the past five years. However, his horses are ineligible to receive Derby points as Churchill Downs has him under suspension from its tracks after Medina Spirit tested positive in 2021 for a legal medication, but not legal on race day.

The hall of fame trainer was originally suspended for two years but Churchill Downs inexplicably extended it one more year despite the fact that Baffert has had no violations during that time.

Still, the favorite will likely be Baffert’s Muth, who won his first race by 8¾ lengths and finished second to Prince of Monaco in the Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar. Juan Hernandez, who has been the top rider in Southern California of late, gets the mount. Muth was a $2-million purchase for owner Amr Zedan. Baffert also has Wine Me Up in the race. He won his only start, a maiden special, at Del Mar on Sept. 2.

Todd Pletcher has shipped Be You from New York for this race. The colt finished fourth in the Grade 1 Hopeful at Saratoga after finishing second by a nose in his first start.

Tim Yakteen has Rothschild, a $700,000 purchase, in the race. He won his second start, a maiden race, and finished sixth in the Del Mar Futurity.

Also expected to get some attention is El Magnifico for Keith Desormeaux. The colt has finished second in both his races, behind Rothchild and Muth.

Also on Saturday’s card will be the Grade 2 $200,000 Chandelier Stakes for 2-year-old fillies who are on the trail to qualify for the Kentucky Oaks. It, too, was named for a restaurant at Santa Anita. Both of the 2-year-old races are 1 1/16 miles and the winner gets a free entry to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies races.

There is one other Breeders’ Cup free qualifier, the Grade 2 $300,000 Rodeo Drive Stakes, a 1¼-mile turf race in which the winner gets a spot in the Filly & Mare Turf.

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