It might not be logical to expect the champion two-year-old and three-time Grade 1 winner #6 Game Winner to lose back-to-back races, but when he starts as the heavy favorite in Saturday’s $1 million Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park, I’ll be tempted to oppose him.
Am I crazy? Maybe. Why would I side against the horse that I have ranked #1 in my Kentucky Derby Top 10? The Bob Baffert-trained colt did nothing wrong last year during a season that culminated with a gutsy triumph in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I), and he didn’t run badly at all when beaten a nose in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park three weeks ago, his first start of 2019.
Yet despite his obvious credentials, and a pedigree that suggests he’ll improve with maturity, part of me does wonder if Game Winner might be reaching his ceiling. He ran well in the Rebel, but it was actually a slight step backward on the Beyer and BRIS speed figure scales, at least compared to his career-best numbers from 2018. Just as significantly, Game Winner is a mid-pack closer with a grinding style, and in a Santa Anita Derby field with just six starters, he could find himself trying to rally into a slow pace while racing wide—a challenging scenario for any horse to overcome.
That’s why I’m going to take a shot with Game Winner’s stablemate #1 Roadster. An eye-catching debut winner at Del Mar last summer, Roadster was subsequently beaten two lengths by Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I), but suffered a breathing issue during the race and underwent surgery to correct it. He then battled with hoof issues during the winter, but when he finally returned to action in a one-mile allowance optional claiming race at Santa Anita, he delivered a big effort to win by 2 ½ lengths despite having only four workouts under his belt heading into the race.
What I liked best about Roadster’s victory was the easy manner in which he achieved it. It was practically a training race—he tracked slow fractions of :23.75, :47.85, and 1:13.16, casually took the lead under a hand-ride, and accelerated the final quarter-mile in less than :24 2/5 seconds to win going away. It was a perfect run for a horse returning from a layoff—a good tightening race, but nothing too strenuous.
Roadster has always shown more tactical speed than Game Winner, and after drawing the rail in the Santa Anita Derby, I expect to see him vie for the lead early on under jockey Mike Smith. If Roadster is as good as I believe him to be, that trip should be just what he needs to take a step forward and upset his more heralded stablemate.
#3 Nolo Contesto, runner-up with a slightly troubled trip in Roadster’s allowance win, and #3 Instagrand, third after making an early move into a hot pace in the Gotham Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct last month, are the other logical contenders. Under the right circumstances, I can envision either winning, but in order to shoot for a respectable payoff in this small field, I’ll be using only Roadster on top of my tickets.
Here’s how I would play the race:
$10 trifecta: 1 with 10 with 3,5 ($20)
$5 trifecta: 1 with 3,5 with 10 ($10)