With the Kentucky Derby less than two months away, excitement and tension filled the Santa Anita paddock Saturday just before the running of the Grade II $300,000 San Felipe Stakes.
Cameras were everywhere, and all eyes were on the two highly regarded 3-year-olds, Flashback and Goldencents. And their two jockeys, Julien Leparoux and Kevin Krigger, acted as if they were engaged in a match race soon after the start of the 1 1/16-mile race.
Flashback, the even-money favorite, and Goldencents engaged in a speed duel, but when they reached the stretch, Hear The Ghost came charging from fifth place under jockey Corey Nakatani and overtook Flashback for a half-length victory. Tiz A Minister rallied for third, with Goldencents fading to fourth in the eight-horse field.
"I thought this horse would have a very good chance to run them down today," trainer Jerry Hollendorfer said. "I thought that all day long."
Hear The Ghost, a gelded son of 2004 horse of the year Ghostzapper, was making only his third start and first around two turns. He earned 50 points under the Kentucky Derby eligibility system used to determine the 20-horse field. Flashback picked up 20 points, Tiz A Minister 10 and Goldencents five points.
"He's a tremendous horse," Nakatani said. "I'd like to get on the Derby trail with a horse, and this is it. He's given me a chance to win the Santa Anita Derby with this colt."
The race set up perfectly for a closer because the early fractions were sizzling: 22.97 seconds, 45.95 and 1:09.94 for six furlongs.
Goldencents engaged Salutos Amigos for the lead early on, then Flashback put on additional pressure.
"Turning into the backstretch, that's like committing suicide," Krigger said of the duel. "If we're going that fast easily, it's understandable, but to pressure in a race like that . . ."
Goldencents' trainer, Doug O'Neill, said he will have to come up with a new plan.
"No excuses," he said. "If you're going to be a Derby horse, you have to adapt and adjust."
Bob Baffert, the trainer of Flashback, said, "He had a nice, tough race, and he got tired at the end, considering he went so fast, but I think we learned a lot about him today."
The consensus favorite for the Kentucky Derby is the Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano, who remained unbeaten with a convincing victory in the Tampa Bay Derby on Saturday. The son of More Than Ready is three for three with victory margins of seven, 16 1/4 and three lengths.