Friday’s $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes (G1) might be packed with proven stakes performers and up-and-coming maiden winners, but only one horse in the 1 1/16-mile event can claim to have won (or even run) around two turns.

The one runner in question is Express Train (#4) (4-1), a $500,000 yearling purchase hailing from the barn of trainer John Shirreffs. A stoutly-bred son of Union Rags out of a Mineshaft mare, Express Train caught my eye when he rallied to finish second behind probable American Pharoah favorite Eight Rings (#3) (9-5) in a 5 1/2-furlong maiden race at Del Mar on August 4.

Although Express Train was no match for Eight Rings, Shirreffs rarely wins with first-time starters, so for Express Train to run as well as he did on debut was encouraging. Even better, Express Train came back to dominate a one-mile maiden race at Del Mar by 14 lengths, earning an eye-catching 100 BRIS Speed figure.

When a Shirreffs runner breaks its maiden, it’s time to watch out – they usually come back with strong efforts. Shirreffs strikes at a 31% rate with last-out maiden winners, and over the last five years he’s 2-for-3 with juveniles fitting this condition. In fact, he won the 2016 American Pharoah Stakes (then known as the FrontRunner Stakes) with last-out Del Mar maiden winner Gormley.

With this in mind, I’m expecting Express Train to take another step forward on Friday. If he does, a “Win & You’re In” berth to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) and 10 qualification points toward the 2020 Kentucky Derby (G1) should be within his reach.

As for the rest, Eight Rings should be a formidable opponent once again. He posted a 100 BRIS Speed figure on debut, and he’ll add blinkers after ducking in and losing his rider early in the Del Mar Futurity (G1). Adding blinkers is a strong move for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who has saddled eight winners of the American Pharoah Stakes.

I’m optimistic both Express Train and Eight Rings will crack the top three in the American Pharoah, but I’ll take a stand against Nucky (#8) (10-1), who prevailed in a slow renewal of the Del Mar Futurity (G1). I give Nucky credit for surviving a pace duel to score by a widening 2 3/4 lengths, but the final three furlongs of the Futurity elapsed in just :40 3/5, and I suspect this former claimer will find the waters deeper in the American Pharoah.


$6 exacta box: 3,4 ($12)
$2 trifecta: 4 with 1,3 with 1,3,5,7 ($12)
$2 trifecta: 1,3 with 4 with 1,3,5,7 ($12)

Good luck!

PHOTO: Santa Anita Park (c) Gustavsson