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Imagination and jockey Frank Dettori win the San Felipe Stakes on March 3, 2024, at Santa Anita. (Benoit Photo)
Imagination and jockey Frank Dettori win the San Felipe Stakes on March 3, 2024, at Santa Anita. (Benoit Photo)
Kevin Modesti, Los Angeles Daily News

ARCADIA — The extraordinary success of tote-board favorites this season suggests horse-racing fans won’t have to look much beyond Imagination to find the winner of the 87th Santa Anita Derby.

Imagination, one of two horses seeking to give trainer Bob Baffert a 10th win in the $750,000, Grade I race for 3-year-olds, is a legitimate top choice on the morning line announced by Santa Anita’s Jon White.

But this Derby is more than one or two or even three or four horses deep, giving fans some chances to get creative in straight bets, multi-horse bets or any of the 10 multi-race bets in which it’s included.

Here’s a look at the eight horses scheduled to line up at the 1-1/8-mile starting point in front of the grandstand Saturday at about 4:30 p.m.

The favorites

• Imagination (post No. 4, jockey Frankie Dettori, 8-5 morning-line odds): His 96 Beyer speed figure for a March 3 victory in the San Felipe Stakes would rate fourth among Kentucky Derby contenders if Churchill Downs were allowing him and other Baffert horses to run. But the son of perennial leading sire Into Mischief has hardly been unbeatable. Imagination finished in a photo with another horse in this field early in their careers.

• Stronghold (No. 3, Antonio Fresu, trainer Phil D’Amato, 5-2): The son of 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper should continue the improvement he showed in winning the Sunland Derby in New Mexico and in recent workouts at Santa Anita. Stronghold is one of a couple of horses who could benefit if a battle for the lead develops in front of them.

The X factors

• Tapalo (No. 2, Umberto Rispoli, John Sadler, 5-1): It’s a sign of confidence that the owners paid $6,000 last weekend to make the ridgling a late nominee to the Triple Crown races. He’s 1 for 5. But he finished a head behind Imagination when they met in December. His second in the ungraded El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, behind Kentucky Derby qualifier Endlessly, is better than it looks on paper. Tapalo held a 2½-length lead on the turn for home and was the only horse to hold on for first or second after leading at that point in a race on Golden Gate’s synthetic track Feb. 10. Sadler has won this race twice.

• Wynstock (No. 5, Juan Hernandez, Baffert, 8-1): The winner over Stronghold in the Los Alamitos Futurity in December is such a high price on the morning line because of an 11th-place finish behind Mystik Dan in the Southwest Stakes in Arkansas on Feb. 3. Baffert shrugs that off as the result of the muddy track. This makes sense, since Wynstock’s previous poor effort came on a “wet fast” track. Or it could be that he needs the early lead. Top rider Hernandez usually gets tactics right.

• Mc Vay (No. 7, Hector Berrios, John Shirreffs, 5-1): Shirreffs’ three Santa Anita Derby victories came with 29-1, 6-1 and 2-1 shots. A fourth will require a big step forward from Mc Vay, still a maiden after a troubled but distant third place in the San Felipe. He’s a $1.25 million son of 2014 Florida Derby winner Constitution and has turned in fast workouts lately.

The longshots

• E J Won the Cup (No. 8, Mike Smith, Doug O’Neill, 15-1): O’Neill, like Shirreffs, can sneak up on the Santa Anita Derby. His two winners were 4-1 and 6-1 at post time.

• Tessuto (No. 6, Kazushi Kimura, George Papaprodromou, 10-1): Tessuto has had trouble at the start in all three of his races and looked better in his maiden victory in February.

• Curlin’s Kaos (No. 1, Diego Herrera, Antonio Garcia, 20-1): The only California-bred and only gelding in the field would be the first graded stakes winner for his jockey or trainer, and the biggest Santa Anita Derby surprise in at least a (human) generation.

The Santa Anita Derby is the 10th of 12 races Saturday and one of five stakes. Baffert-trained Kinza is a 4-5 morning-line favorite in the $300,000, Grade II Santa Anita Oaks, the sixth race, and it’s harder to envision her losing than to see Imagination upset.

The Derby caps a new bet called the Big 3 Pick 3, linking the three races on the final day of major Triple Crown preps: the Wood Memorial (1:07 p.m.) at Aqueduct in New York, the Blue Grass (2:52) at Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, and the Santa Anita Derby.

The Blue Grass is a rematch of Dornoch and Sierra Leone, 1-2 in the Remsen Stakes at Aqueduct two starts back, and Just a Touch could join them in qualifying for the Kentucky Derby.

At Santa Anita, the trends can’t be ignored: Post-time favorites are winning 46% of all races this season. Favorites had won 12 of the past 16 graded stakes races at Santa Anita through last week. As for the Santa Anita Derby, the past 10 runnings have produced four successful favorites, and no winner has come from outside the public’s top three choices.

Those numbers point to Imagination. But betting calls for imagination.

Follow Kevin Modesti on Twitter (formerly X) @Kevin Modesti.