This time McKinzie gets to make a trip to the Winner's Circle during Sham Stakes

Kentucky Derby contender McKinzie’s previous race before Saturday produced a horse track oddity: a Winner’s Circle without the winner.

The inquiry sign began blinking as soon as McKinzie trailed Solomini across the finish line a month ago in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Many observers expected the result to stand — notably Mike Smith, McKinzie’s rider. Smith hopped off and headed to the jockey’s quarters while the horse was led back to the barn.

Then the stewards, in a close call, flipped the order, demoting Solomini for impeding a rival and elevating the runner-up to first place.

So, when McKinzie ducked under the wire first with far less drama in the Grade II Sham Stakes on Saturday at Santa Anita, his connections eagerly gathered for the Winner’s Circle photo that they recently missed out on. Bob Baffert, who trains both newly turned 3-year-olds, took on the role of choreographer, positioning the sizable party in a group pose.

“Perfect,” Baffert said.

McKinzie was not perfect, but he didn’t need to be.

First, the field was lightweight; the second and fourth wagering choices had never competed against winners. Then Mourinho — the primary challenger, also trained by Baffert, who seemingly oversees every Triple Crown threat on the West Coast — was scratched. McKinzie launched at 1-to-5 odds in the calendar year’s first event to earn qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

“He came back to run like we hoped,” Baffert said. “Everything went smooth. That’s what you want.”

At Los Alamitos, McKinzie wore blinkers, a tactic that compels horses to remain focused but can also induce too much aggression on the track.

“Today, he seemed to relax early,” Smith said. “Then he jumped when I asked, so taking the blinkers off, I thought we might as well try it. I think it was a great move.”

Smith situated McKinzie in fourth place for about half of the one-mile journey, then pulled him out wide to take aim on the frontrunners.

With a tap of the whip, they swept past All Out Blitz entering the stretch. Smith retired his whip for the day, and McKinzie needed no tactile prodding to ease home by 3½ lengths.

“If [only] he’d relaxed in the Los Al Futurity,” said Baffert, sounding as if McKinzie wound up there in second. “He got a little rank, but he got a lot out of it.”

All Out Blitz hung on in the Sham for second, ahead of My Boy Jack. Shivermetimbers, who curiously was favored in McKinzie’s debut in late October, struggled to fourth. Asked if the later-than-normal career start means McKinzie still must catch up on the experience scale with other 3-year-olds, Baffert said, “He’s caught up.”

A bargain at $170,000 at the Keeneland sales, McKinzie exceeded that amount in winnings in two races. His income climbed to $270,000 on Saturday, and he maintains the third-lowest odds through the opening round of advanced betting for the Kentucky Derby.

McKinzie also holds the top spot on Baffert’s deep roster of Derby possibilities, though the trainer observed that the pecking order is fluid.

“He’s certainly the most accomplished,” the trainer said. “We’ll let the others see if they can catch up.”

Noncommittal on McKinzie’s next possible outing, Baffert did say that Mourinho would be sent to Oaklawn Park for the Smarty Jones Stakes on Jan. 15.

After the photo was snapped, Karl Watson, McKinzie’s co-owner, was reminded of the wackiness at the horse’s delayed-gratification win at Los Alamitos that caused a vacant Winner’s Circle.

“I didn’t know what they [the stewards] would do,” he noted before adding with a grin. “I will say this: They did the right thing.”

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