04/05/2012 3:06PM

Santa Anita Derby: Creative Cause has eyes on bigger prize

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Creative Cause will race without blinkers in Saturday's Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Creative Cause will be wearing No. 1 when he enters the gate for the Grade 1, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on Saturday, an appropriate designation for the colt who has been the West Coast’s top-ranked Kentucky Derby prospect for months.

It is a position Creative Cause claimed when he romped in the Norfolk Stakes here last fall, just before his third-place finish behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

This spring, trainer Mike Harrington has deftly guided Creative Cause through his local preps for the Kentucky Derby. Although Creative Cause finished third in his first start of the year, in the seven-furlong San Vicente, Harrington insisted it was a means to an end, and Creative Cause took a step forward last time out, with his victory in the San Felipe Stakes.

Now comes the final prep for the May 5 Kentucky Derby, but the Santa Anita Derby in and of itself is a major prize. That’s the tightrope Harrington, Creative Cause, and jockey Joel Rosario will walk Saturday. Harrington would like to win the race, but he wants an even better performance four weeks hence.

[SANTA ANITA DERBY: Early look video, news updates, watch the race live]

“I’ve always viewed these preps as stepping-stones,” Harrington said earlier this week on a national teleconference. “You want to win, because it’s a lot of money, but you don’t want to take the race out of the horse.”

In an effort to see if he can extract more from Creative Cause, Harrington is taking blinkers off Creative Cause for the first time in his career, following seven starts that have yielded four wins. There’s a lot of talent there. Perhaps there’s even more to be mined, because in the San Felipe, “he got to wandering around in the stretch, he wasn’t real focused down the stretch,” Harrington said.

“I don’t know if it will make a difference, but now is the time to find out,” he said. “I don’t want to wait until the Kentucky Derby.”

The Santa Anita Derby is one of three Kentucky Derby preps on Saturday, all covering 1 1/8 miles. At Aqueduct, Alpha, Gemologist, and My Adonis head the field in the Grade 1, $1 million Wood Memorial. And at Hawthorne, a maximum of 14 will go in the Grade 3, $500,000 Hawthorne Derby, in which Currency Swap and Our Entourage are the marquee names among 17 entered, including three also-eligibles.

Both the Santa Anita Derby and the Wood will be shown live on a 90-minute telecast on NBC, beginning at 1:30 p.m. Pacific.

The Santa Anita Derby is the sixth race on an 11-race card, beginning at noon local time. Gates open at 10 a.m., and there is T-shirt giveaway. The card includes three other stakes, most notably the Grade 2, $150,000 Potrero Grande for older sprinters, including last year’s Eclipse Award champion for the division, Breeders’ Cup winner Amazombie.

But it is the 3-year-olds who command headlines at this time of the year.

The Santa Anita Derby offers a good test for Creative Cause. Nine horses are entered against him, including I’ll Have Another, an impressive winner of the Robert Lewis on Feb. 4; and Liaison, who was fourth in the San Felipe but won the CashCall Futurity last fall. Creative Cause will have to extract himself from the rail, but, in prior races, he has been adaptable to different situations, displaying the speed to lay close and the maturity to sit and finish.

“He’s a great horse. He can do anything,” said Rosario, who said he mentioned the idea of taking blinkers off to Harrington.

“Turning for home last time, passing the last horse, he would lose focus and look around,” said Rosario, who thinks removing blinkers might keep Creative Cause more aware of his surroundings.

Although Rosario said Creative Cause was playing around in the San Felipe, Harrington said Creative Cause has matured in recent months on a day-to-day basis.

“He’s not quite as playful as he was,” Harrington said. “He’s more serious. It used to be you couldn’t lead him from the track without him trying to attack the pony.”

I’ll Have Another should be on or near the lead. He returned from a five-month layoff to win the Lewis, then was purposely given two months off by trainer Doug O’Neill and owner Paul Reddam to prepare for the Santa Anita Derby.

To win the Santa Anita Derby, though, all must conquer trainer Bob Baffert, who has won the race a record six times and will take three shots this year. His best chance is likely with Liaison, but Baffert also has former claimer Blueskinesnrainbows, making his stakes debut, and the speedy Paynter, who is diving into the deep end the pool off a debut win against maidens going 5 1/2 furlongs.

Other speed should be provided by Senor Rain, winner of an optional claiming sprint March 16.

Midnight Transfer is a major player. He was a good third, beaten just three lengths by Creative Cause, in the San Felipe, his first try around two turns.

Longview Drive was a close third in the Sham before a wide trip in a division of the Southwest at Oaklawn.

Brother Francis, still a maiden, was third to Liaison in the CashCall Futurity.

The status of Holy Candy, a recent runaway maiden winner, will be a raceday decision. He may await the Grade 1, $750,000 Blue Grass Stakes next Saturday at Keeneland. If he runs in the Santa Anita Derby, it would be his third race in five weeks.