01/03/2013 2:19PM

Santa Anita: Goldencents starts road to Kentucky Derby in Sham Stakes

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Between them, trainers Doug O’Neill and Bob Baffert have won three of the last four runnings of the Santa Anita Derby, and their drive to this year’s race on April 6 begins in earnest Saturday, when both send out a pair of runners in the Grade 3, $100,000 Sham Stakes, the first graded stakes of the Santa Anita meet for Kentucky Derby prospects.

O’Neill has the horse to beat in Goldencents, who displayed tremendous promise at age 2, including a victory in the Delta Downs Jackpot and a runner-up finish behind likely divisional champion Shanghai Bobby in the Champagne Stakes. The Sham, at one mile, will mark his first two-turn race on a mile racetrack, but he has shown an ability to adapt, having finished first or second in all three of his starts at three different racetracks.

“He hasn’t done a thing wrong,” O’Neill said. “To fly across the country and finish second in the Champagne showed that he’s got a lot of ability, and then he overcame the outside post in his race at Delta, which impressed me.

“Hopefully, he didn’t peak in Vinton, La.,” O’Neill said, referring to the site of Delta Downs.

In fact, Goldencents appears to be coming into the Sham in excellent form. O’Neill is not known for working his horses aggressively, but Goldencents has turned in best-of-the-morning drills in his last two workouts.

An intriguing aspect of the race involves the pace, because Goldencents has gone to the lead in all of his starts. But Manando, a Baffert trainee, is likely to be aggressive from an outside post, being as he won in front-running fashion against maidens at Betfair Hollywood Park in his last start.

“I don’t think Goldencents needs the lead,” O’Neill said. “If someone wants to go crazy to the front, I think we can sit and let that horse go. If not, we can take the lead. He’s got that Lava Man combination of speed and stamina.”

O’Neill also sends out the longshot Greeley Awesome, who beat maiden claimers in his seventh and most recent start Nov. 30 at Hollywood Park.

“He was entered in a couple of starter-allowance races that didn’t fill, so it was either this or leave him in the barn,” O’Neill said. “It’s a short field. Hopefully, he can get a piece of the purse.”

Manando took four starts to finally defeat maidens, but his last race was his first around two turns after three sprints, which Baffert believes made the difference.

“He just couldn’t keep up chasing going short,” Baffert said. “Going long, you’re not going 21 and change. It makes a difference.”

Baffert’s best chance, though, may be with Den’s Legacy, who comes off a late-running third-place finish under Garrett Gomez last month in the CashCall Futurity.

“He ran a great race,” Baffert said. “Garrett was mad at himself after the race. He thought he could have been second if he’d have stayed inside instead of going outside.”

There are two others entered in the six-horse field.

Dry Summer never fired when eighth of 11 in the FrontRunner in his only previous try on dirt, but trainer Jeff Mullins said he is encouraged by his recent works over the track.

Dirty Swagg was seventh of 11 in the CashCall Futurity after getting squeezed at the start. He was a good third in the Real Quiet Stakes in his prior start, but his only Santa Anita race was poor. He finished ninth of 11 in the FrontRunner. After two starts without blinkers, they go back on Saturday.

The Sham offers qualifying points to the Kentucky Derby as part of Churchill Downs’ new system to determine entries in the event the race oversubscribes. Points are awarded on 10-4-2-1 basis to the top four finishers in the Sham.