04/08/2017 8:53PM

Gormley bounces back with Santa Anita Derby win

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Emily Shields
Gormley paid $14.20 in winning the Santa Anita Derby on Saturday.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Trainer John Shirreffs and jockey Victor Espinoza have worked as a team with their current crop of 3-year-olds, going back to last summer, with Espinoza carrying out Shirreff’s instructions in morning works and afternoon races, trying to mold and craft.

How appropriate, then, that their efforts paid off handsomely Saturday at Santa Anita with a colt named for a sculptor. Gormley, rebounding from a disappointing race in the San Felipe four weeks earlier, won the biggest race of the meet here for 3-year-olds, the Grade 1, $1,002,415 Santa Anita Derby. Next stop: Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby on May 6.

Gormley ($14.20) - named for famed British sculptor Antony Gormley - proved best in a charge to the wire that was exciting but not particularly fast. He prevailed by a half-length over Battle of Midway, with Royal Mo – like Gormley trained by Shirreffs and owned by Jerry and Ann Moss – another half-length back in third.

Reach the World was fourth, with favored Iliad fifth. Kimbear was sixth and was followed, in order, by Term of Art, Irish Freedom, Milton Freewater, Midnight Pleasure, So Conflated, American Anthem, and Comma Sister.

The first five runners were separated by 2 1/2 lengths after 1 1/8 miles on the fast main track in 1:51.16, with the final three furlongs in 40.24 seconds. Considering the speed of the track Saturday, the speed figure likely will come up soft.

But Gormley earned the win. He jostled with Iliad just past the wire the first time, found his way into a sweet spot down the backstretch, then out-battled his rivals. The win was his fourth in six starts, including the Grade 1 FrontRunner last fall and the Grade 3 Sham in January.

The key, Espinoza and Shirreffs agreed after the race, has been getting Gormley to rate, which he did here. He usually breaks sharply, which helps put him in a good position, and in races lacking speed he has found himself on or near the lead.

“He’s so quick out of the gate. It’s easy for him to be on the lead,” Shirreffs said. “But that’s not his best style.”

Espinoza said when he took a hold of Gormley soon after the start, “he came back to me beautiful,” and said Gormley shrugged off the early bumping with Iliad.

When Battle of Midway, American Anthem, and Royal Mo set out at a quick pace - 22.66 seconds for the opening quarter and :46.55 for the half - around the first turn and into the backstretch, Gormley wound up in a gorgeous spot, in fourth, about five lengths behind that trio.

“I was sitting in a perfect spot,” Espinoza said. “I thought, ‘This is our chance.’ ”

As the field neared the far turn, Espinoza angled Gormley off the rail so he could go around the three leaders.

“I didn’t want to get stuck behind them,” he said.

Gormley came into the stretch in the four path, and responded to Espinoza’s urging while in tight quarters.

“He’s tough. Any contact, he wants to go,” Espinoza said. “He’s not a wimpy horse. He’s not going to be intimidated.”

Gormley, a colt by Malibu Moon, earned a first prize of $600,000. He also picked up 100 points on the system used by Churchill Downs to determine the field for the Derby should more than the maximum 20 horses enter, which seems a certainty the way this prep season has gone. The first three finishers in this race likely will have enough points to run.

Battle of Midway “ran dynamite” in his stakes debut, said his jockey, Corey Nakatani.

“Never, never, never gave up,” Nakatani said. “He never got a breather.”

Royal Mo, who pressed the pace while three paths wide, like Gormley rebounded from a poor effort last time out: he was ninth in the Rebel at Oaklawn. With Espinoza choosing Gormley, Gary Stevens picked up the mount on Royal Mo, whom Espinoza had ridden in all his prior starts. Stevens said his whip was inadvertently knocked from his hand by Espinoza in deep stretch.

Reach the World, who finished a neck behind Battle of Midway in an allowance race March 9, finished well after being forced wide on the far turn and wider still -- about seven lanes out -- into the stretch.

“I took him out on the backside because it was so congested,” said Mike Smith, who rode Reach the World. “When he wanted to run, I didn’t want him to. When I wanted him to run, he didn’t. He’s still learning.”

Reach the World took all the early money, but late money on Iliad left him the lukewarm favorite; both were 3-1, with slightly more money on Iliad.

Iliad had finished second to Mastery going 1 1/16 miles in the San Felipe, and couldn’t quite handle 1 1/8 miles Saturday. He rallied inside of Reach the World on the far turn but was out-finished by him.

“I thought he did the best he could,” said Doug O’Neill, who trains Iliad.

O’Neill still got a consolation prize Saturday, winning the Blue Grass at Keeneland with the longshot Irap.

But here at Santa Anita, the day belonged to Shirreffs and Espinoza. They have both won the Kentucky Derby – Shirreffs once, Espinoza three times – but never together. In four weeks, they’ll see if Gormley fits the mold of a Derby winner.