Eight Rings winning the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita - © BENOIT PHOTO

Eight Rings winning the American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita – © BENOIT PHOTO

Eight Rings might still be a work in progress, but his abundant, raw talent was apparent when he romped to victory in Friday’s $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes (G1) at Santa Anita. Whatever will his rivals do when Eight Rings figures out what racing is all about?

Just 25 days after he ducked in and lost his rider shortly after the start of the Del Mar Futurity (G1), Eight Rings rebounded with a dominant triumph in the American Pharoah. Bettors, likely recalling his impressive debut victory at Del Mar, established Eight Rings as the 6-5 favorite at Santa Anita, and they never had a moment to worry.

With Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez in the saddle for trainer Bob Baffert, Eight Rings broke fastest from the gate and boldly raced to the front, where he set quick fractions of :23.72, :47.06 and 1:11.71, and extended his lead to as many as 2 1/2 lengths. American Theorem tracked the pace in second place, while second choice Express Train rated in mid-pack after a troubled beginning.

As he rounded the far turn, American Theorem left the rest of the field behind and tried to narrow Eight Rings’ advantage, but the favorite still had plenty left in the tank and responded to Velazquez’s urging. In front by three lengths at the eighth pole, Eight Rings showed no signs of stopping as the finish line approached. He pulled away late to score by six lengths.

American Theorem easily held for second over the late-charging Storm the Court, while Express Train flattened out to finish fourth after a bold rally around the far turn.

“He’s still not 100% confident in what he needs to do,” Velazquez told the Santa Anita publicity department after the race. “Obviously he’s very talented, but he needs to put it together and go on. He still ran a good race, but you can see he has some room to improve. If he can put his mind to running, he’ll be a dangerous horse.”

Regarding his decision to send Eight Rings to the lead, Velazquez added, “I wanted to put him into the race, and that way he could get his mind on running. I was pretty comfortable with the way he was moving in the backstretch. But he kept kind of wandering, so I felt like I had to keep reminding him to focus. It’s only his second start, so he’s still learning.”

Eight Rings stopped the clock for 1 1/16 miles in 1:45.41, substantially faster than the time of 1:46.10 posted by stablemate Bast in the Chandelier Stakes (G1) earlier on the card. The colt is owned by the partnership of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Frederick Hertrich III John Fielding and Golconda Stables.

“The horse was training really well. I told Johnny V. to ride him with confidence. I thought he might be in front,” Baffert said. “Johnny said, ‘Let’s get him away from there,’ and he’s figured out this track. … He just got out there really quick, and I was actually just watching his ears the whole way. Johnny said he’ll be going good, then he’ll start looking around and lagging, and all the way down the stretch he was still looking around.”

A son of Belmont Stakes (G1) winner Empire Maker, out of the Pure Prize mare Purely Hot, Eight Rings secured a “Win and You’re In” berth to the November 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Santa Anita. A victory in the Juvenile would almost assuredly secure Eight Rings an Eclipse Award as the champion two-year-old male of 2019.

Looking down the road, the victory in the American Pharoah also gave Eight Rings 10 qualification points toward the 2020 Kentucky Derby, a race Baffert has won on five occasions. It’s not a stretch to say Eight Rings has emerged as one of the early favorites for the Run for the Roses, and with Empire Maker as his sire, classic distances shouldn’t be any issue.

Once Eight Rings figures out the mental part of the racing game, his rivals better bring their running shoes.