Grade I Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita Park – 4/5/2014

Santa Anita Number 7_editor_681x410The Grade I Santa Anita Derby will be run at Santa Anita Park on Saturday, with post time set for 6:30 ET. The Santa Anita Derby has historically been one of the most important Kentucky Derby prep races, and I don’t think this year’s edition is any different. While it may not be the best betting race of the prep season, it is sure to yield a few horses that will likely be among the favorites when the 20 three year olds step into the starting gate at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Let’s take a look at some of the contenders in this year’s Santa Anita Derby.

California Chrome is the current favorite for the Kentucky Derby, largely due to his massive performance in the Grade II San Felipe last month. If he runs anything close to that effort, it’s likely that everyone else will be running for second money. Having said that, I have reason to believe that this horse won’t be fully cranked up for this race. California Chrome has enough points to get into the Kentucky Derby already, so you’ve got to believe that trainer Art Sherman has the bigger picture in mind – use the Santa Anita Derby as a final tune up so that this son of Lucky Pulpit is ready to roll at Churchill Downs next month. He’s fully capable of putting forth a big effort on Saturday, but I’m siding against him on the win end.

I’ve loved Hoppertunity since he broke his maiden January 30 at Santa Anita, but I don’t love his chances to win the Santa Anita Derby. Hoppertunity is basically in the same boat as California Chrome headed into this race – he’s got the necessary points needed to get into the starting gate, so it doesn’t seem likely that we’ll see his “A” game on Saturday. There have been a fair amount of people that think he’s a notch below the top California three year olds…nobody knows for sure, but hopefully we’ll find out four weeks from now in Louisville. He’s still my pick to win the Kentucky Derby and he may run well on Saturday, but I’m not expecting a win out of Hoppertunity in the Santa Anita Derby. (It is interesting to note the developing plot for this horse, though: a quality three year old colt owned by Mike Pegram (among others) and trained by Bob Baffert, yet people seem to be ranking him behind the other talented three year olds from California. Can you say, “Real Quiet”?)

If you’re looking for a horse outside the “Big Three”, might I suggest Schoolofhardrocks? This lightly raced son of Rock Hard Ten most definitely needed a race coming off a roughly six month layoff, so a step forward on Saturday wouldn’t be a surprise. The biggest question this colt has to answer – is his best good enough to compete with the three favorites? He’s going to be the fourth choice in the Santa Anita Derby, and realistically he is an outsider. If both California Chrome and Hoppertunity don’t bring anything resembling their best to the track Saturday, maybe this guy can round out the exacta. If you decide to take a shot and play him to win, make sure you receive generous odds.

The reason I’m picking John Sadler’s Candy Boy to win the Santa Anita Derby isn’t necessarily because I love the horse, but it’s more a product of the scenario that presents itself. With the Baffert and Sherman entrants already locked into the Derby field, I’m going to go with the horse that NEEDS points in order to race in Kentucky four weeks from now. Candy Boy was a well beaten second in December’s CashCall Futurity, but that was behind the highly regarded Shared Belief – a gelding who went on to win an Eclipse Award as Champion Two Year Old. His return to the races in the Grade II Robert Lewis at Santa Anita was a strong effort, one in which he defeated both Chitu and Midnight Hawk – the subsequent 1/2 finishers of the Sunland Derby. I’m honestly not sure how good this horse is, and I truly believe his long term future will be on the grass. That being said, there is no doubt that he’s going to be fully cranked for this race, and that’s something that can’t be said for his main competition. For that reason, I’m going with Candy Boy to win the Santa Anita Derby.

SELECTION: 6 – Candy Boy, Gary Stevens; ML 9-5

Matt Bernier picMatt Bernier was the youngest qualifier to the National Handicapping Championship (NHC) this past year and he is one of the stars of the Esquire TV series Horseplayers. is pleased to offer his educational and expert analysis of major stakes races.

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