Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, who’s never won the Kentucky Derby, came into 2019 with a 3-year-old colt many feel could help land the 72-year-old trainer in the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs on May 4.
Instagrand, a son of Into Mischief, won his only two starts last year by a combined 20 1/4 lengths before being shut down for the year. After Instagrand won the Grade II Best Pal Stakes at Del Mar by 10 1/4 lengths on Aug. 11, he was, in the minds of many, the horse to beat in this year’s Kentucky Derby.
But as ESPN college football analyst Lee Corso likes to say, “Not so fast.”
Hollendorfer has another talented sophomore who showed he also deserves Derby mention Saturday as Gunmetal Gray closed from last in the field of seven to upstage 3-5 favorite Coliseum and win the $100,702 Grade III Sham Stakes by one length with Mike Smith aboard.
In a race that has produced three Santa Anita Derby winners since its inception in 2001, Gunmetal Gray kicked off Southern California’s version of the Road to the Kentucky Derby with his second victory in five starts. His best race before Saturday was a runner-up effort behind Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Game Winner in the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita on Sept. 29.
Now Gunmetal Gray, a son of Exchange Rate, hopes to join Colonel John (2008), Goldencents (2013) and Gormley (2017) as horses to parlay success in the Sham to victory in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.
The final time on a main track labeled “fast” was nothing special, 1:38.96 for the 1-mile distance, but swift times were not on the agenda Saturday. Plus, as horsemen like to say, time only matters in prison.
Fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2, Gunmetal Gray was last, about seven lengths behind 17-1 longshot Savagery, through the first half-mile. By the time the field hit the top of the stretch, he was within four lengths of the lead and Smith had him in high gear.
“I didn’t expect to be that far back,” Smith said. “I got taken off my game plan a little bit. Coliseum kind of slipped and broke to the right (next to the winner). He really hit me in behind and set me farther back than I wanted to be.”
Smith said he was aboard Gunmetal Gray when the colt worked three-eighths of a mile for the first time.
“I thought a lot of him then, believe it or not,” he said. “I told Jerry to take his time and thought he’s the kind that will get better as he gets a little older. He’s taking that big step forward, but I think he’s shown he can get the distance. They’ll start separating themselves as these preps go on, but at least he took that first step.”
Coliseum, who finished sixth, certainly had his excuses. A 6 3/4-length winner in his debut at Del Mar on Nov. 17, he broke slowly and raced wide virtually the entire way under Joe Talamo. He was beaten about four lengths at the end.
Whether he would have been a match for the winner with a cleaner trip is something we’ll never know.
Said Hollendorfer: “Mike knew we wouldn’t be near the lead and we were hoping to get some pace to run at. Mike sat back, bided his time, and he ran them down.”
Hollendorfer said Gunmetal Gray has been doing well since his Breeders’ Cup effort.
“We came back here after the Breeders’ Cup and he’s really trained well the past two months,” he said.
The Sham Stakes is named after the 1973 Santa Anita Derby winner, who finished second behind the great Secretariat in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before being eased in the Belmont.
Sham’s jockey, Laffit Pincay, Jr., was in the winner’s circle to present the trophy to the winning owners Saturday.
“That day, in the Kentucky Derby, I thought I was going to win that race,” said Pincay, who maintains Sham was the best horse he ever rode. “I got to the stretch and when I saw Secretariat it surprised me because my horse was really running.”
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