The 2020 Sham Stakes
Sometimes a memorable year starts right at the beginning.
Though the Kentucky Derby is not contested until springtime (with some exceptions, notably in 2020), the prep season begins far earlier. Specifically, it gets underway in the winter after Thoroughbreds turn three years of age on January 1.
At tracks across North America, warm thoughts of sending a horse to compete under the Twin Spires occupy the minds of many as they deal with cold weather in the region of the country they are residing in. Trainers enter their horses in races of increasing lengths as the winter and spring seasons move along, all in the hope that a start at Churchill Downs awaits them.
Over at Santa Anita Park, the Kentucky Derby prep season begins with the Grade III Sham Stakes, which has been part of the track's winter/spring meeting since 2001. For its twentieth renewal, six horses entered the starting gate on January 4, 2020: Authentic, Azul Coast, Scoring, Taishan, Uncaptured Hero, and Zimba Warrior. Of that group, Zimba Warrior was the only horse with stakes experience, finishing third in Santa Anita's Sunny Slope Stakes and Del Mar's Grade III Bob Hope Stakes the preceding autumn. But handicappers were not keen on the son of Khozan's chances, making him the biggest longshot in the field.
As far as bettors were concerned, the Sham Stakes went through a colt named Authentic, a bay Into Mischief colt trained by Bob Baffert. A debut winner at Del Mar's Bing Crosby meet in November while sprinting five and one-half furlongs, the Bob Baffert trainee was asked to go a mile in his second outing. Into Mischief had won going slightly longer, taking the Grade I CashCall Futurity in 2007. The question was whether Authentic could route at this stage of his young career.
Authentic wasted no time seizing the lead, getting up in the opening strides. He led the field while setting a relaxed pace going around Santa Anita's main track. The field stayed close together for much of the race, but Authentic was in control the whole way. No one got by him as they went around the far turn, and that is when the race changed.
As he approached the top of the stretch, Authentic expanded his lead. None of his five rivals put up a fight, losing ground to the favorite every second. Authentic was by far the strongest horse in the field, and he put it on display. While he distanced himself from the others, Authentic showed touches of greenness, for he veered outward and then back in for a moment, but Drayden Van Dyke got him straight again, and the two decimated the field by over seven lengths to get Authentic's season off to a winning start in 1:37.57.
No one knew it at the time, but that was just the start of a big year for Authentic. He went on to win the Grade II San Felipe at March, finish second in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby in June, and capture the Grade I Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park before stunning Tiz the Law in the Kentucky Derby in September. With that victory, Authentic became the first winner of the Sham Stakes to be victorious in the Run for the Roses.
It was a historic occasion for the longtime event, and Authentic joined Giacomo (who was third in the 2005 Sham Stakes) as Sham Stakes alumni to become Kentucky Derby champions. And Authentic's win will lend prestige to an event that has produced several Kentucky Derby runners. And maybe he will be the first of several Sham Stakes runners to go on to Derby glory in the years to come.
That might also be the case for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Two months after his Derby win, Authentic ventured to Keeneland for the Classic, taking on fellow three-year-old horses and older horses for the first time. The assignment did not faze him. He went to the front quickly and led the field around Keeneland. No one overtook him in what turned out to be his last race, and Authentic left Kentucky as champion of the Breeders' Cup Classic before being retired. Just like in the Kentucky Derby, Authentic became the first winner of the Sham to take the Classic. He also produced the rare feat of winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Classic in the same year, joining Sunday Silence (1989), Unbridled (1990), and American Pharoah (2015). And his efforts netted him well deserved Eclipse Awards for Top Three-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year.
Sometimes, a horse will make a late impact on the Kentucky Derby prep season and get the win in Louisville. Others show their class early on at the start of the year and it culminates with a triumph in America's biggest horse race. And either scenario can be followed by more success as the year goes on.
It just goes to show that on any day at a racetrack, fans might see a horse begin his journey towards the sport's biggest stages. Those at Santa Anita on January 4, 2020 may or may not have thought it at the time, but that is exactly what they saw courtesy of Authentic.