Yes, Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park is only a Grade 3. And yes, only five horses are entered. But no. These facts scare away exactly nobody interested in New Year Kentucky Derby reconnaissance.

Parnelli-Sham Stakes
Parnelli makes his fifth career start in Saturday’s Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. He hasn’t missed the board in his previous four: a win and three seconds. (Image: Zoe Metz Photography)

That’s because one of those five is Life Is Good. The same Life Is Good who won his debut by 9 ½ lengths going gate-to-wire. When you plug in the Baffert factor and the Into Mischief progeny variable, you understand why that sent him to the top of the Kentucky Derby futures boards at both Circa Sports (+950) and William Hill Nevada (10/1). You also understand why Life Is Good went off at 1/5.

So yes, Life Is Good already sucked up much of the oxygen in a race that – despite its Grade 3 status – always illustrates not only Derby contenders, but future Grade 1 winners. The Sham draws its name from the standout 1973 Santa Anita Derby winner. Most know Sham as Secretariat’s foil during that memorable Triple Crown season, but he was a great horse in his own right.

His Derby time, estimated between 1:59.74 and 1:59.93 – based on electronic timing not available in 1973 – is the second-fastest time in Derby history.

Reigning Derby Winner Authentic Won the Sham Stakes

And his namesake race gave us champions such as 2008 Travers Stakes winner Colonel John, 2011 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Tapizar, two-time Dirt Mile winner Goldencents, McKinzie and, yes, last year’s winner by 7 3/4 lengths – Authentic.

The Authentic factor looms over this year’s race. Not only for the Baffert factor, since the Hall of Fame trainer owns six Sham titles, but for the Derby factor. Authentic was the first Sham winner to double in the Derby. And every mention of Life Is Good brings Baffert and Authentic into the discussion.

For Life Is Good, the explanation behind his 2/5 odds here begin with his speed advantage over the rest of the field. His 106 Equibase Speed Figure and 91 Beyer Speed Figure in that Nov. 22 debut displayed the kind of speed horseplayers salivate over in a juvenile making his debut. The fractions increased the drool factor more: 21.80-second quarter-mile, 44.8 half and 1:09 three-quarters. A strong, 1:10.6 six-furlong workout last Saturday showed more.

One Question: Can Life Is Good Handle Two Turns?

The only question surrounding Life Is Good is the reason Baffert chose the Sham for Life Is Good’s second career race. The Sham is a two-turn mile and Life Is Good hasn’t tackled two turns yet.

“I always like to see what they’re going to do going two turns,” Baffert told Santa Anita’s Ed Golden. “We know he’s got a lot of speed, he’s shown brilliance, but until they go two turns . . . I think he should handle it but I’ve got to see it myself.”

The “other Baffert” in the race – Medina Spirit (6/1) – is in the same boat. He didn’t tackle two turns in his debut victory over 5 ½ furlongs three weeks ago. He’ll not only get two turns, but get it without blinkers. And Medina Spirit will get it stretching out 2 ½ more furlongs – quite an ask. Especially against horses who own speed and two-turn experience.

Horses like Parnelli (5/2). If you think Life Is Good won’t run to his odds-on numbers or speed figures, Parnelli is your candidate. It took the John Shirreffs charge four tries to break his maiden, but only because he tangled with the likes of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Hot Rod Charlie and Baffert’s Spielberg.

Parnelli Lost Three Races by Less Than Four Lengths

And yet, Parnelli finished second in each of his first three races: by a neck to both Hot Rod Charlie and Spielberg and by 3 ¾ lengths to Superman Shaq in his September debut. When Parnelli finally broke through in a mile race Nov. 28, he broke through by 5 ¾ lengths.

Should Life Is Good break out too fast or not sustain his blazing speed fractions, Parnelli likely picks up the pieces.

Sham Stakes

Morning Line (Jockey/Trainer)

  1. Medina Spirit, 6/1 (Abel Cedillo/Bob Baffert)
  2. Waspirant, 15/1 (Umberto Rispoli/John Shirreffs)
  3. Parnelli, 5/2 (Drayden Van Dyke/John Shirreffs)
  4. Uncle Boogie, 12/1 (Flavien Prat/Andrew Lerner)
  5. Life Is Good, 2/5 (Mike Smith/Bob Baffert)

Shirreffs’ Waspirant and Andrew Lerner’s Uncle Boogie round out the field hunting down the 10-4-2-1 Derby qualifying points up for grabs.

The pick: Parnelli. He has the speed to run with Life Is Good, especially if the 2/5 favorite goes out too fast. Think about this when you ponder Parnelli’s current 100/1 (Circa) and 90/1 (William Hill) Derby futures odds.