As the 2009 Breeders' Cup from Santa Anita approached in late October, all of the buzz in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile surrounded Bob Baffert's Lookin At Lucky. The two year-old had been ultra impressive in every start at his young age and was the post-time favorite from, as weird of a pun on words as it is, the unlucky 13 post.
He didn't break all that well, had to check, and was forced out on the first turn. He managed to make a move to the outside on the backstretch and was forced five wide into the far turn, where he got even for a time with the eventual Irish-bred winner Vale of York, but the damage had been done during the grueling one and a sixteenth mile race.
He definitely proved he had heart, talent, and everything it takes to be a successful champion thoroughbred. The question that everyone will be waiting to be answered come Saturday: is Looking at Lucky ready to be a Kentucky Derby winner and three year-old champion?
In his first start on a dirt surface at Oaklawn Park, Lookin at Lucky tackled a field in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 13th. He drew an inside post position and went to the gate as the overwhelming favorite at 6-5.
He likely would have been a much heavier favorite on a synthetic surface. His six races as a two year-old were all on synthetic surfaces and all were raced in the Southern California circuit (Hollywood Park, Santa Anita Racetrack, and Del Mar Racetrack).
History has shown that horses who have shown only success on synthetic surfaces will really struggle in the Kentucky Derby. Last year, Mine That Bird, at odds of 50-1, was the first horse to win the Derby with one of his previous wins coming on synthetic. Past winner Street Sense ran a couple nice races over Keeneland's synthetic track, but he did not win in either of those starts prior to winning the Kentucky Derby.
The last horse to race strictly in Southern California before heading to Louisville and winning was Giacomo in 2005, but remember at that point none of the surfaces on that circuit were synthetic, they were still all conventional dirt.
Trainer Bob Baffert has made the smart move by getting Lookin at Lucky out of California to make his final Derby preps. Last year, Pioneer of the Nile swept the Southern California prep series winning the San Felipe Stakes, Robert B. Lewis Stakes, and the Santa Anita Derby. He finished a distant second to Mine That Bird in the Kentucky Derby and ended up with a career ending injury shortly following the Preakness Stakes. I think Baffert has figured out that getting his stud off of the synthetic surface could be the key to getting into that winner's circle.
You can't doubt the impressive performance that Lookin at Lucky put up in the Juvenile five months ago. You can't doubt the fact that the colt is undefeated outside of that Breeders' Cup race.
However, one reason to put a little doubt in your mind is that this horse has never won a race by more than two lengths. His six victories come by a combined five lengths and one head. They are very slim margins of victory for a horse that tends to sit just off of the pace and pounce on the leaders. It seems like he just doesn't have that closing kick that typical Derby winners tend to have.
He will have a number of other Derby prospects to deal with this Saturday in Arcadia and they are not a bunch of slouches by any stretch of the imagination.
Sidney's Candy was the winner of the San Felipe, going gate to wire in 1:42.30. My biggest issue was the final sixteenth of a mile of his previous race. Joe Talamo got him to settle on the lead and set very reasonable fractions. He had to really get into him in the final strides to hold off Interactif, who looks to be headed towards the Bluegrass Stakes at Keeneland.
The Santa Anita Derby is one and an eighth miles and is going to stretch Sidney more than he'll want to go. John Sadler is one of the best on the So. Cal circuit, and he may find a way to get that extra half furlong out of this horse on Saturday.
He just looked really tired towards the end of the San Felipe, and the synthetic surface tends to take a toll on front-runners. It is going to be a very tough task for the likely favorite on Saturday.
Caracortado could be the most interesting horse in the Santa Anita Derby after watching the replay of the San Felipe a half-dozen times. 40 year-old jockey-lifer Paul Atkinson rides this horse and that sadly could be his downfall over the long haul.
I respect Michael Machowsky's decision to stick with the guy who got him where he is, but it appeared that the veteran jockey made a mistake in the San Felipe. He had to realize the slow pace that was happening in front of him. Sidney's Candy got no pressure, Interactif was rushed up on the outside by American Lion, and Atkinson gave up the best position on the track to the two horses in front of him heading into the stretch and could not make up the ground he needed to. He had to go four wide and that ended up being his death sentence.
He easily could have been considered the best horse in the race had he been given the proper ride. It happens and I understand that, but I think Machowsky needs to look for a more consistent rider. He seriously could have the most talented three year-old racing in the Santa Anita Derby. If Atkinson can pull it out and get the horse in the right spot on Saturday, good for him and good luck at Churchill.
Last but not least, Alphie's Bet, trained by Alexis Barba and ridden by Alex Solis, could turn some heads this weekend with a victory at Santa Anita. He won the Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita roughly a month ago, but will need a strong race to earn enough to make it to the Kentucky Derby.
If a pace-duel ensues in the Santa Anita Derby, Alphie's Bet might be the most likely contender to pick up the pieces. Realistically, if Caracortado will go after Sidney's Candy like I think he should early in the race, Atkinson could make the mistake of pushing things a little too much. I wish Mike Smith was still riding this colt, but Alex Solis is more than capable when he is on top of his game.
The problem is he is just not a great rider any more. He is winning at less than 10 percent this meet at Santa Anita. He is barely holding on to that clip at all over the past year, and most of those wins are coming in cheap claimers at Hollywood Park. It just seems like Solis' days of being a big time jockey are over at this point.
Maybe the talent of Alphie's Bet is enough to revitalize Solis. He had a great horse in The Pamplemousse a while back and an injury to the horse really played mind games with the jockey.
It's a tough race to handicap up and down, but I see a long shot coming in on top as they hit the wire.
A few years back, the now establish, Tiago, pulled a huge upset at very long odds in the Santa Anita Derby. He did not go on to have any success at Churchill Downs, but proved that a grueling pace can set up nice for a long shot.
Sidney's Candy will likely be on the front end again, and it will be very interesting to see how close Garrett Gomez will get to him early on in the race. If the half-mile is around 46 seconds, then Alphie's Bet and a bunch of other late runners could have a say.
It's so tough to say because trainers are trying new strategies with these horses every race to find their ideal running style for the Kentucky Derby. Chip Wooley and Calvin Borel didn't find it until the actual Kentucky Derby last year. Tough call in the Santa Anita Derby this year, I'm leaning toward Alphie's Bet and the upset. That doesn't mean he's the best horse, just a winner by default.