Equipment change pays off for McKinzie in Sham

ARCADIA, Calif. -- With the Kentucky Derby four months away, now is the time to experiment, but also to gain the experience needed for the demands of that race. It was in that context that McKinzie ran on Saturday in the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita, for, with just two starts, he needed more of a foundation, and after getting rank in his prior start, the blinkers were removed, even though he had never lost.

The improvement on Saturday was noticeable. McKinzie sat comfortably just off a moderate pace while wide, then powered home to win the Grade 3, $100,345 Sham by a widening 3 1/2 lengths and solidify his position among the nation's best 3-year-olds.

McKinzie ($2.40), the heavy favorite, completed one mile on the fast main track in 1:36.58, which should translate to a strong Beyer Speed Figure based on how dull this track has played. All Out Blitz, the early leader, was clearly second, four lengths better than My Boy Jack.

Shivermetimbers, the second choice, was fourth, then came the race's two longest shots, City Plan and Here Is Happy.

Mourinho was scratched Saturday morning in favor of running in the Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on Jan. 15.

McKinzie has now won all three of his starts, and even though he was credited with a Grade 1 win last time in the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity, this was his best race yet.

As in the Los Alamitos Futurity, victory in the Sham was worth 10 points toward a berth in the Kentucky Derby.

"I'm happy. Everything went smooth," said his trainer, Bob Baffert. "He got a lot out of that. I'm trying to get a base in him."

McKinzie did not make his debut until Oct. 28, when he beat maidens at Santa Anita. He has now had three races in 2 1/2 months, and likely will have two more starts before the Kentucky Derby.

"I had to rush him into those races," Baffert said of his first two starts. "He didn't relax in the Los Al Futurity. He was rank. But he got a lot out of it.

"Last time, he got a little tired at the end. That was a good race. Those are good horses."

McKinzie was placed first in the Los Alamitos Futurity on the disqualification of his stablemate, Solomini, who was adjudged by the stewards to have interfered with third-place finisher Instilled Regard. McKinzie, who crossed the wire second, was promoted to the victory when Solomini was moved back to third.

The result Saturday was clear-cut. And McKinzie was much more sensible under regular rider Mike Smith with the blinkers off.

"Mike said he was better like that," Baffert confirmed.

McKinzie, by Street Sense, is owned by Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman, best known for racing two-time Eclipse Award winner Lookin At Lucky, among many top runners. McKinzie is named for Baffert's long-time friend, Brad McKinzie, the popular racing executive at Los Alamitos who died last year.

"Lot of pressure with that name," Baffert said.

McKinzie earned $60,000 on Saturday to bring his career bankroll to $270,000. He was purchased by his owners as a yearling for $170,000. That's a nice base. But based on what he's shown so far, there's more to come.