01/08/2017 11:26AM

Watchmaker: Gormley shows he doesn't need it all his way

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Benoit & Associates
Gormley, left, and American Anthem battle in the Sham Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita.

January may be barely a week old, but for many the real road to the May 6 Kentucky Derby began Saturday at Santa Anita in a sloppy-track Sham Stakes. Gormley and American Anthem put on quite a show in the Sham, slugging it out from beginning to end, and virtually distancing the five others who shared the starting gate with them

Gormley got the decision by a head, and in doing so addressed a primary question about him. Gormley had a very easy and uncontested early lead when he won the Grade 1 FrontRunner last fall, and when he didn’t have that sort of massive tactical advantage in the subsequent Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, he backed up and finished a badly beaten seventh.

But Gormley showed in the Sham that he is not a colt who needs to have everything his own way to run big. In fact, perhaps the most impressive aspect of Gormley’s win Saturday was that he conceded the early lead to an opponent as clearly talented as American Anthem, and still prevailed.

As for American Anthem, he ran too well to lose, but he deserves a lot of credit for running as well as he did. American Anthem had only one six-furlong maiden decision going into the one-mile Sham, as opposed to three prior starts for Gormley - two of which came in slightly longer routes. Yet American Anthem gave Gormley everything he wanted, and on the basis of simple numbers it’s easy to think that he is the one with more room for improvement.

If there was one cause for pause after the Sham, it was that Gormley and American Anthem did not come home as quickly as the visual might have had you believe. The final quarter-mile was 25.76 seconds, and the second and final half-mile was 50.43. But I’m not going to get too hung up on this point, at least not right now.

The first two fractions of the Sham of 22.54 and 45.46 seem quick in comparison to even the seven other sprints on Santa Anita’s Saturday card, and it’s unknown how tiring the off track might have been going longer.

Yes, it is not ideal to compare the Sham pace to sprint paces, but the only other route on the card was the San Gabriel Stakes, which was rained off the turf and run at nine furlongs. For the record, however, older males in the San Gabriel went much slower early, recording initial splits of 23.16 and 47.17.

Gormley and American Anthem were both 50-1 in the latest future book Kentucky Derby odds issued buy the Race and Sports Book at Wynn Las Vegas, and after what they showed Saturday I would expect the odds on both to be lower in the next release from Wynn.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and slam-dunk 2-year-old male champion Classic Empire, who reportedly impressed Sunday in his first published workout since the Breeders’ Cup, is currently Wynn’s Derby favorite at 7-1. Mastery, romping winner of the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity, is second choice at 8-1.

The only others currently under 20-1 on Wynn’s future book Derby line are McCraken, 10-1, winner of the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, and Mo Town, 16-1, winner of the Remsen.

*** The finalists for the 2016 Eclipse Awards were announced a few days ago, and while I have hope that the collective Eclipse Award electorate will settle on the right champions far more often than not, I have to admit that I don’t understand how certain horses became finalists.

For example, I was as big a fan of Not This Time as anyone, but I am not a fan of making horses Eclipse Award finalists off losses. That had to be the case with Not This Time and his game second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, because his only stakes win was in the Grade 3 Iroquois, and that pales in comparison of achievement to Mastery’s wins in the Grade 1 CashCall, and in the Grade 3 Bob Hope.

There is no doubt that Lady Aurelia was a tremendous racing story in 2016, but the Eclipse Awards are and always have been North American championships (if that has changed, I didn’t get the memo), and the only race Lady Aurelia won in North America last year was a 4 1/2-furlong maiden race. In the meantime, a filly such as Abel Tasman, who went 3 for 4 in this country and won the Grade 1 Starlet, is on the outside looking in.

But the one Eclipse Award finalist that I have a real issue with is Lord Nelson in the older dirt male category. Lord Nelson had a terrific year last year winning three Grade 1 races – the Triple Bend, Bing Crosby, and Santa Anita Sprint Championship, and he will be in an interesting battle with Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Drefong for champion male sprinter.

However, Lord Nelson is a sprinter, a specialist, and he has his own category. Melatonin, meanwhile, won the Santa Anita Handicap and The Gold Cup at Santa Anita, two Grade 1 races at 1 1/4 miles that speak to the very essence of the older dirt male division, and he got nothing.

I realize that California Chrome will (justifiably) be a lopsided winner of the older dirt male Eclipse Award, and there are those who will say that because of that, it doesn’t really matter if Melatonin or Lord Nelson was, along with Frosted, the other finalist. But I think it does matter, because I believe there is also honor in being a finalist, and I believe it’s important that such honors go to the right horses.

There is more to Eclipse Award voting than merely tallying up graded stakes wins. Or, there should be.