Whether it's due to a perceived East Coast bias or rooted in something more concrete, California-based horses don't seem to get the same level of respect as their comrades east of the Mississippi.
Florida-based Union Rags is viewed as this year's top 3-year-old, but in the upcoming Grade II San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita Park, a strong case can be made that the West Coast has the most depth of Kentucky Derby hopefuls.
Rare is the race that can lose two of its top contenders in a span of three days and not suffer a major drop in quality. To the delight of Santa Anita officials, the $300,000 San Felipe on Saturday was able to do just that.
On Monday, Eoin Harty-trained Out of Bounds — winner of the Grade III Sham Stakes — was sidelined after suffering a non-displaced condylar fracture in his left front.
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On Wednesday, Hall of Famer Bob Baffert was able to draw on his barn's wealth of talent by entering promising maiden winner Bodemeister in place of the well-regarded Fed Biz when the latter tied up (cramped) earlier in the week.
Trainer Mike Harrington had already decided to start both Grade I winner Creative Cause and his improving stablemate Empire Way in the San Felipe.
And with Baffert also sending out Grade I winner Liaison — and with stakes winners Rousing Sermon and Midnight Transfer also in the mix — the 11⁄16-mile San Felipe stands to be one of the most competitive prep races this season.
"I think the California horses are pretty deep," Baffert said. "It's going to be a really good race. Liaison, his last race was puzzling but he really looks good for this race. Bodemeister is really fast but ... you never know what they're going to do when they're up against stiff competition and have to go toe-to-toe."
Though Liaison and Creative Cause are the two Grade I winners in the field, the San Felipe has no clear favorite.
Liaison, who won the CashCall Futurity last December, had a horrific season debut in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes, getting headstrong early and then losing rider Rafael Bejarano after clipping heels in the stretch.
Baffert said he is taking the blinkers off the son of Indian Charlie for Saturday but ultimately believes a longer distance will be up the colt's alley.
"It was a really weirdly run race," Baffert said. "He got rank and he wouldn't settle down and he was just in a tough spot the whole way. He never shut it down and he sort of just lost interest. But I think he needs 11⁄8 miles."
Creative Cause, winner of the Grade I Norfolk Stakes and third-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, also was beaten first time out this year when he ran third in the Grade II San Vicente.
The 7-furlong race was not ideal to Creative Cause's running style, and Harrington wasn't dismayed by the colt's effort. However, what is troubling for Harrington is having to pit his two good sophomores against each other at this stage.
"I didn't want to run my two horses together, but the timing is such that I'm almost forced to do that," Harrington said. "They won't interfere with each other as far as running styles, it's just that I need earnings for Empire Way and if the other horse beats him, I'm shooting myself in the foot. But you have to do what you have to do."
While Bodemeister burst onto the scene for Baffert when he broke his maiden by 91/4 lengths at Santa Anita on Feb. 11, Empire Way has been steadily working his way up the ranks of the Harrington shedrow.
A full brother to champion Royal Delta, Empire Way closed from last to get second in the Robert B. Lewis, finishing well ahead of Rousing Sermon, runner-up to Liaison in the CashCall Futurity.
With San Vicente runner-up American Act and Bodemeister both expected to set the early pace, those sitting off the lead should get plenty to work with. If nothing else, Saturday's result should go a long way toward sorting out which of the West Coast contenders will separate themselves from the pack.
"Union Rags won impressively and Hansen came back and won nicely last weekend," Harrington said of the duo that finished ahead of Creative Cause in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. "They both ran very well, so that must mean that we have a legitimate horse at this point in time."