Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit is favorite in Santa Anita Derby

Racing returned to a semblance of normal Friday as fans were allowed back at Santa Anita. The small but enthusiastic crowd of about 3,200 cheered things that are normally ignored, and the feel of a close finish seemed to take on hyperbolized gravity.

Friday was sort of a practice session, a warmup act to Saturday’s 12-race card highlighted by the Grade-1 $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, the biggest race of the six-month winter/spring meeting. The track is opening parts of the infield and a size-controlled crowd of 9,000 is anticipated.

They come to see the next winner of the Kentucky Derby, or at least hope to see the 20th horse that has gone on from this race to win on the first Saturday in May. Bob Baffert has won the Santa Anita Derby a record nine times and it should be no surprise he has the favorite in Medina Spirit, who is 5-2 on the morning line.

But the thrill of horse racing often can be found in beating the favorite, and a lot of money will be wagered on the eight other horses in the 1-1/8-mile qualifying race for the Kentucky Derby. A lot of hopes for that are pinned on Dream Shake, the 7-2 second choice, who has run only two races.

Peter Eurton, trainer of Dream Shake, said if they win, “I’ll be riding so high you’ll have to hold me down from flying away in the winner’s circle. I’ll be that way if we finish second too.”

First place in the race gets 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points, guaranteeing a spot in the big race. Second gets 40 points, which is usually north of the cutline in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby.

Dream Shake has taken a very different route than Eurton’s Kentucky Derby horse last year, Storm the Court. As a 2-year-old, Storm the Court won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, making him the Derby favorite for a race that wouldn’t be run for 11 months after his win. Along the way, Storm the Court never recaptured that 2-year-old brilliance and ran sixth in the Derby.

Dream Shake didn’t even run as a 2-year-old, instead making his debut on Feb. 7, winning by 4¾ lengths over a maiden field that included Bezos, a $400,000 Baffert colt. Bezos won his next start by 4½ lengths.

Dream Shake finished third in last month’s San Felipe Stakes, behind Life Is Good and Medina Spirit. Life is Good subsequently suffered a minor injury and is off the Derby trail.

“We were asking a lot of Dream going into his second start lifetime and first time going two turns against two of the best horses in the country,” Eurton said. “I thought he ran very well. … I think we’re just trying to peak at the right time, hopefully it’s Saturday, but he’s trained forwardly to this point.”

Storm the Court’s early start presented one scenario for Eurton and Dream Shake’s presents another.

“Either way is good with me,” Eurton said. “Last year was really different, all my 3-year-olds came out late. Everything is late this year. You just never know.”

One change that will not hurt Dream Shake is switching from jockey Joel Rosario to Flavien Prat, Santa Anita’s leading rider. Rosario rode Dream Shake the first two races but elected to ride in Keeneland this weekend. Even if Rosario were to have come West on Saturday for Dream Shake, it’s anticipated that he would ride Concert Tour in the Kentucky Derby if the colt does well in next week’s Arkansas Derby.

Prat has even been working Dream Shake in the morning, something the top tier

of jockeys doesn’t always do.

“I think he’s just really happy the way he’s worked and he’s pretty excited about how the horse has trained,” Eurton said. “His last two works were well within himself and he looked the part. And Flavien enjoyed getting to familiarize himself with [the horse] and he liked what he had underneath him.”

While there is no verbal agreement, Eurton presumes that Prat will elect to ride the colt in the Kentucky Derby if he performs well on Saturday.

With the return of fans, there is yet one more unknown for trainers and horses. How will 3-year-olds deal with hearing fans for the first time after a year with no fans. It’s not normally a problem with average-sized crowds but when you hit a wall of sound, such as at the Kentucky Derby, it can be unnerving.

“It’s going to be interesting this weekend,” Eurton said. “Some can handle it and some can’t. It can affect horses just like people. But, I don’t think it’s going to bother my horse.”

Eurton is hoping a better answer to that question comes on a bigger stage in about four weeks.