Shaman Ghost winning the Brooklyn Invitational (gr. II) at Belmont Park – Coglianese Photos/Nikki Sherman
On March 11th, Santa Anita Park will host a terrific day of racing highlighted by four graded stakes, including the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I). The historic ten-furlong race has been won by some of the greatest horses in racing history, including Seabiscuit, Affirmed, and John Henry, and while the 2017 renewal lacks some of the star power of previous editions, the race has nevertheless drawn a competitive field of nine horses.
On paper, the race appears to be a battle between Midnight Storm and Shaman Ghost, the two favorites on the morning line at odds of 8-5 and 2-1. The tactical advantage should go to Midnight Storm, a very fast son of Pioneerof the Nile that figures to secure an easy early lead. Trained by Philip D’Amato, Midnight Storm has been campaigned primarily on turf, but successfully transferred his talent to the main track to win the Native Diver Stakes (gr. III) at Del Mar and the San Pasqual Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita, earning BRIS speed figures of 108 and 102. In the San Pasqual, Midnight Storm posted fast fractions of :45 3/5 and 1:08 4/5 but still held on to win, and while his only previous attempt at ten furlongs yielded a poor finish in the 2015 Pacific Classic (gr. I), he was involved in a stiff battle for the lead that day and should get a much better trip on Saturday.
On the other hand, Midnight Storm will have to be sharp to hold off the powerful late run of Shaman Ghost, who thrives at longer distances and should relish the every furlong of the Santa Anita Handicap. Trained by Jimmy Jerkens, the son of Ghostzapper won the ten-furlong Queen’s Plate Stakes at Woodbine in 2015 and successfully stretch out even farther to win the twelve-furlong Brooklyn Handicap (gr. II) at Belmont Park last summer. He proved that he can win at the Grade 1 level when he defeated the accomplished runners Mubtaahij and Frosted in Saratoga’s nine-furlong Woodward Stakes (gr. I) last September, and in his most recent run, Shaman Ghost finished a strong second behind Arrogate in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) at Gulfstream Park, earning an eye-catching 110 BRIS speed figure.
In general, Shaman Ghost likes to settle off the pace before rallying in the homestretch, but I think there’s a chance we could see him more forwardly placed in the Santa Anita Handicap. He showed in both the Brooklyn and the Woodward that he can be successful racing just a few lengths off the early pace, and his BRIS pace figures indicate that he is significantly quicker than he appears at first glance. In his last two starts, Shaman Ghost has posted E1 and E2 pace figures of 95 and 105 (in the Pegasus World Cup) and 97 and 112 (in the Clark Handicap), which stack up quite nicely against Midnight Storm’s recent figures of 100 and 110 (San Pasqual Stakes) and 97 and 105 (Native Diver Handicap).
With this in mind, I envision Shaman Ghost working out an excellent trip in the Santa Anita Handicap, staying a bit closer to the pace than usual while staying within striking range of Midnight Storm. From there, I believe the distance will play in Shaman Ghost’s favor, with his stamina allowing him to wear down the morning line favorite and win going away.
For the exotics, the veterans Hard Aces and Imperative both warrant respect; they’ve won their fair share of significant races through the years, and Hard Aces in particular has a solid record at ten furlongs, finishing in the superfecta in two previous editions of this race. But one up-and-comer to keep an eye on is Follow Me Crev, who won four straight races last winter before missing the 2016 Santa Anita Handicap with a setback. His two stakes efforts last summer were modest, but he returned from a long layoff to win an 8.5-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita on February 20th, rallying from off the pace to win by three-quarters of a length while earning a 99 BRIS speed figure. With a career-best figure of 103, Follow Me Crev doesn’t need to take a huge step forward to be very competitive in the Santa Anita Handicap, and I think he has a shot to finish in the trifecta at a bit of a price.
Now it’s your turn! Who do you like in the Santa Anita Handicap?
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