With a front-running romp in Saturday’s San Felipe S. (G2) at Santa Anita, Life Is Good strengthened his hold upon Kentucky Derby favoritism. The Bob Baffert-trained colt will make his final prep race in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 3.
The San Felipe was one of three qualifiers over the weekend, each offering 85 points toward a Kentucky Derby berth (50-20-10-5 scale).
Helium and Weyburn opened their three-year-old seasons with respective upsets in the Tampa Bay Derby (G2) and Gotham S. (G3). Neither was nominated to the Triple Crown by the Jan. 23 deadline, but connections can pay a $6,000 late nominee fee by March 29.
After blitzing foes in his career debut sprinting last November, Life Is Good won the Sham S. (G3) in early January by less than a length. The unbeaten sophomore cranked it up a notch in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe.
Breaking from post 1, Mike Smith wasn’t taking any chances as Life Is Good showed good speed from the break, sprinting clear by a couple of lengths on the first turn. The Into Mischief colt settled into a nice rhythm while cruising along down the backstretch.
Entering the stretch, Life Is Good drew off to win by eight lengths. He didn’t appear tired afterward, and registered a career-best 103 Brisnet Speed rating.
It was disconcerting to see his antics coming home, drifting out while widening his advantage in the stretch run. Smith said his mount was looking at the big TV screen in the infield, and Baffert wasn’t concerned, noting that his runner is still learning.
“He’s still green,” Baffert told the Santa Anita Press Office on Sunday. “Remember Authentic did all that weaving one race…they’re still babies. They’re still immature. The main thing is he came out of it really well. We saw a lot of raw talent yesterday.”
Before delivering Baffert a record-tying sixth Kentucky Derby win in early September, Authentic drifted in and out repeatedly when opening his three-year-old season with a convincing tally in the Sham.
Life Is Good is quite the formidable presence in his division – bettors hammered him down to 2-1 favoritism in Pool 4 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager last weekend – but he hasn’t faced pressure yet.
Granted, he’s a threat to keep trouncing the competition on the front end with his speed. But there’s no guarantee Life Is Good will be able to dictate terms at Churchill Downs, especially if Caddo River and Drain the Clock perform well in upcoming preps.
Baffert will keep teaching his star pupil to relax in the mornings, and I wouldn’t put anything past Life Is Good at this stage of the game.
Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify proved tractable for Baffert. Last year, Nadal appeared to be all speed early in the season, but he tracked the pacesetter before rolling to an outstanding Arkansas Derby (G1) win in his career finale a few months later.
I thought Authentic was more one-dimensional, leading wire-to-wire in all five stakes wins, including the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1). His only losses came when he didn’t make the early lead in the Preakness and Santa Anita Derby.
Stablemate Medina Spirit, a rallying second in the Sham and wire-to-wire winner of the Jan. 30 Robert B. Lewis S. (G3), lost ground on Life Is Good through the final furlongs, but he easily outfinished Dream Shake for second. Baffert said the Santa Anita Derby and Arkansas Derby would be options for the Florida-bred Protonico colt.
Dream Shake came up empty in the final sixteenth of a mile, but held to be a clear third in his second career start. He remains eligible to improve upon the initial stakes experience.
Tampa Bay Derby
Helium had never raced on dirt or at two turns. Last seen winning a seven-furlong stakes at Woodbine in mid-October, the Mark Casse-trained colt deserves credit for overcoming a ridiculously wide tip in the 1 1/16-mile Tampa Bay Derby.
When 3-1 second choice Hidden Stash drew alongside in midstretch, Helium kept finding more to win going away by nearly a length. He was overlooked at 15-1 odds.
The Kentucky-bred is from the first crop of turf star Ironicus. And turf always will be an option given his breeding. Casse noted Helium’s stamina, and the bay is out of a mare by 1995 Kentucky Derby winner Thunder Gulch.
Considering how well he ran off the lengthy layoff, Helium appears likely to bypass another prep race. Training up to the Kentucky Derby off an eight-week layoff is an unconventional strategy, though.
And Helium must get significantly faster to challenge after netting only a 93 Speed rating.
Runner-up Hidden Stash will point to the Blue Grass S. (G2) at Keeneland on April 3.
Weyburn showed resolve winning the Gotham by a nose over a one-turn mile at Aqueduct. After chasing pacesetter Freedom Fighter, the Ontario-bred fought back to edge Crowded Trade, who appeared headed to victory after surging to the front in midstretch.
Bettors gave Weyburn little chance following a slow maiden special weight victory over a sloppy Aqueduct track in early December, dismissing him at 46-1. The Pioneerof the Nile colt looked much improved off the three-month layoff for Jimmy Jerkens, with his Speed ratings jumping 19 points to a 104.
I loved the grit he displayed along the inside in deep stretch, and Weyburn is bred to thrive over longer distances. But he hasn’t been two turns yet, and Jerkens didn’t sound keen on bringing him back four weeks later in the Wood Memorial (G2) four weeks later following such a taxing performance.
Weyburn may wind up targeting the 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes on June 5 for his first Triple Crown appearance.
After winning his career debut on Jan. 28, Crowded Trade gave a fine account of himself in his first attempt against winners. He will head to the April 3 Wood Memorial for Chad Brown. Stablemate Highly Motivated didn’t enjoy a clean trip, bobbling at the break and being forced to check early along the backstretch, and closed ground belatedly for third as the odds-on favorite.
A convincing winner of the Nyquist S. at Keeneland last fall, Highly Motivated will look to improve upon his seasonal opener when trying two turns in the Blue Grass.
Saturday’s $1 million Rebel S. (G2) at Oaklawn Park is the lone qualifier this weekend, and top draws for the 1 1/16-mile race include Caddo River and Concert Tour. Baffert will try to win an eighth Rebel with the latter.
American Pharoah S. (G1) winner Get Her Number and Kentucky Jockey Club S. (G2) victor Keepmeinmind add depth to the eight-horse field.
I don’t know whether longer distances will be ideal for Caddo River, but he exits a sharp wire-to-wire score in the one-mile Smarty Jones S. over the track and looks like the controlling speed Saturday.