The 19th running of the Grade 3, $100,000 Sham Stakes starts the 2019 California Road to the Kentucky Derby off with a chance for some newly turned 3-year-olds to earn points which, come this spring, help determine who can enter the starting gate on the first Saturday in May.
Seven hopefuls line up, with two from the barn of Bob Baffert, who has won this race in three of the last five years including last year with McKinzie. Peter Miller saddles a pair, as does Keith Desormeaux, leaving trainer Jerry Hollendorfer as the only conditioner with a sole entrant. That is Gunmetal Grey, the only horse in the field to have run in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile last fall, in which he rallied wide from 12th of 13 to end up fifth at the end. That effort followed a runner-up finish in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes behind eventual Juvenile winner Game Winner. Much Better, one of the two Baffert trainees, finished last of 14 in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf following a runner-up effort in the Zuma Beach Stakes (also on turf) but broke his maiden on dirt prior to that.
Gray Magician (one of Miller's pair) and Coliseum (the other Baffert trainee) both earned their first wins impressively in November and hope to duplicate the feat of 2014 Sham winner Midnight Hawk, who was one of the recent winners trained by Baffert. Sueno (one of the two Desormeaux entrants) enters the race off a victory in the Gold Rush Stakes at Golden Gate at the distance of the Sham, while Savagery (the other Miller trainee) finished second in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes in November before a poorer, fourth place effort in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity last month. Easy Shot, the other Desormeaux entrant, earned his first win last time out by three and one-half lengths, but did so in a maiden claiming race.
Sueno can post the upset in this race based on the way he took to two-turns last month when winning the Gold Rush Stakes. Having been away from the races for three months, Sueno maturely rallied from fifth to draw off late and earn a career-best 95 Equibase Speed Figure. Although the Gold Rush was run on all-weather, Sueno proved capable on dirt prior to that with a four and three-quarter length win in a field of 10. Kent Desormeaux gets the mount for the first time on Sueno and that's a very positive angle according to STATS Race Lens. In the past five years, horse trained by Keith Desormeaux which get a jockey change to Kent Desormeaux have won 25% of the time on 72 races and betting those 72 horses to win has returned a healthy 25% profit. The dam has produced four other horses besides Sueno, and all four are dirt route winners, which provide more reasons to suggest Sueno can improve nicely off his first route win last time out and post the upset in this year's Sham Stakes.
Gunmetal Gray won his two-turn debut in August by nearly seven lengths. He followed up that effort with a career-best 100 figure earned when second to four and one-half length winner Game Winner in the American Pharoah Stakes in September. Like Game Winner, Gunmetal Gray returned five weeks later to run in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but he did not run as well, finishing fifth after being as far back as 12th in the 13 horse field. Rested two months in preparation for his three year old campaign, Gunmetal Gray gets the services of Mike Smith and has stakes experience three others in the field lack, including likely favorite Coliseum. As such, if Gunmetal Gray can logically improve off his American Pharoah effort as a much more physically mature three year old, he can run well enough to win this race.
Gray Magician broke his maiden impressively in his most recent race, by nine and one-half lengths, but facing stakes competition could be a whole different matter. However, Gray Magician earned a 98 figure while winning at this mile trip and following two months off so improvement is possible. Gray Magician has excellent breeding for the trip as well, as his half-brother Lombo won the 2018 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (in February) at Santa Anita. Grey Magician also showed a lot of maturity in his most recent race as he rallied from third, five lengths back, to win by nearly 10 lengths.
I feel I must mention Coliseum as he may be the betting favorite based on his easy six and three-quarter length win in his only race, in which he led from nearly start to finish and earned a field high 104 figure. That style may be problematic in the Sham as Savagery puts blinkers back on and will likely be sent to the front from the start. However, Coliseum does have history on his side because his trainer, Bob Baffert, has won 33% of the time (14 for 42) when starting a horse off a debut maiden win in a stakes race over the last five years, including Midnight Hawk in this race back in 2014.
The rest of the Sham field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures, is Easy Shot (88), Much Better (97) and Savagery (97).
You can get Ellis' detailed selections and analysis for the entire day of racing at Santa Anita HERE
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