SINK OR SWIM TIME FOR TRIPLE CROWN HOPEFULS
As American Pharoah fades majestically into the sunset, Derby Fever begins anew Saturday when Bob Baffert takes step one on what he hopes is the path to the Kentucky Derby and beyond with his leading Triple Crown candidate, Mor Spirit, in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes.
The Lewis is one of four graded stakes on a highly appealing and diversified racing program that also features the $300,000 Las Virgenes Stakes marking the three-year-old debut of unbeaten champion two-year-old filly of 2015 Songbird; the $500,000 San Antonio Stakes for older horses which is a steppingstone to the $1 million Santa Anita Handicap on March 12; and the Grade II San Marcos Stakes for older horses at 1 ¼ miles on turf.
“This is when you start heading to the deeper part of the pool,” said Baffert, who seeks his sixth win in the Lewis, named for his late client, who died at the age of 81 on Feb. 17, 2006.
Baffert captured the Triple Crown with Horse of the Year American Pharoah last year and has won the Run for the Roses four times, with Pharoah; in 1997 with Silver Charm, owned by Lewis; Real Quiet in 1998; and War Emblem in 2002.
The Lewis was named the Santa Catalina Stakes until 2007. Baffert previously won what is now the Lewis with General Challenge (1999), Domestic Dispute (2003), Pioneerof the Nile (2009), Flashback (2013) and Dortmund (2015).
“They start separating themselves now,” said Baffert of the three-year-olds with designs on the classics. “I think with every start, we’re learning more about Mor Spirit and figuring out what he wants to do. He has a lot of tactical speed but you can’t let him use it too early.
“We’re teaching him to sit and wait. He’s a big horse and beautifully made. He’s got a really long stride. He’ll be best going a mile and an eighth and further.”
Gary Stevens, who has ridden Mor Spirit in three of his four starts including the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity which resulted in a 1 ½-length victory on Dec. 19, is aligned with Baffert.
“He’s doing really well,” Stevens said of Mor Spirit, a son of Eskendereya owned by Michael Lund Petersen. “He’s training forwardly since the Futurity and I’m looking forward to his first start since December, so we’re excited.
“He’s got a huge stride and beautiful action.”
Sharing Saturday’s spotlight is Songbird, the brilliant daughter of Medaglia d’Oro who captured the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies with complete authority and in a near-unanimous vote was acclaimed the best of her division. In fact, there are those who feel she is better than her male contemporaries, although any potential showdowns seem unlikely.
Songbird has not been nominated to the Santa Anita Derby or any of the Triple Crown races. Her major goal beyond the Las Virgenes and the Santa Anita Oaks on April 9 is the Kentucky Oaks on May 6.
“I don’t remember us running fillies against colts,” said Dan Ward, who has been Jerry Hollendorfer’s valued assistant for nine years. “Songbird’s owner (Kentucky-based Rick Porter, who races as Fox Hill Farm in Lexington) has never won the Kentucky Oaks and he wants to try for that.”
Meanwhile, Team Hollendorfer has been able to dance through the raindrops in maintaining a regular training schedule for Songbird, who has not raced since Oct. 30.
“We got lucky,” said Ward, who served 22 years under the late Bobby Frankel before his tour with Hollendorfer. “It’s hard to say if Songbird is better than last year, but it is possible.”
Now that’s flat-out scary.
PHIL D’AMATO RULES THE TRAINING ROOST
Thanks to two winners Saturday, including Sunday Rules over males in the Don Valpredo California Cup Sprint with the impeccably-presented mare Sunday Rules, trainer Phil D’Amato increased his lead in Santa Anita’s standings to three over Doug O’Neill, 12-9.
D’Amato also has more than a $280,000 lead over runner-up Bob Baffert in money won, at $775,560 to $493,540.
D’Amato ran one-two in Saturday’s 10th and final race, with first-time starter Shy
Camelita and apprentice David C. Lopez overtaking $2.30-1 second choice Desperate Chick by a half-length at a $26.20 win mutuel, capping a two-day Pick Six return of $13,253.20 on 61 winning tickets.
An assistant to the late Mike Mitchell for 10 years, D’Amato has two goals for Sunday Rules, a five-year-old daughter of the late Tribal Rule owned and bred by Nick Alexander, who also owns and bred Shy Camalita: first, earning black type as a graded stakes winner, and second, running in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
“Sunday Rules came out of the race good,” D’Amato said between raindrops at Clockers’ Corner Sunday morning. “We’re going to try and make her a graded stakes winner in the next month or two, so we’ll keep all our options open and give her a little extra time after yesterday’s race. She ran hard (although winning by 2 ¼ lengths under Edwin Maldonado) but she came out of it good.
“Our main goal would be the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Santa Anita at the end of the year (Nov. 4). We’ll keep her sprinting for now.”
D’Amato may not have the equine ammo of O’Neill, Bob Baffert, Jerry Hollendorfer and Peter Miller to stay atop the standings throughout the Winter Meet that ends April 10, but to paraphrase Al Jolson, “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“I’m very happy with our success early on,” said the 39-year-old D’Amato, a native of San Pedro, “and come February and March, we’ve got a lot of young talent still to unleash, so I’m looking forward to that.”
FORMER JOCK KENNY BLACK RELISHES BIGGEST WIN AS TRAINER
One of America’s top apprentice jockeys in the early 1980s, Kenny Black was at times overcome with emotion yesterday following his biggest training achievement to date—a brilliant 3 ¼ length win in Saturday’s $250,000 California Cup Turf Classic by Old English Rancho-bred What a View, who was ridden by Kent Desormeaux.
What made the win especially emotional was the fact that E.W. “Bud” Johnston, who had headed the farm’s breeding and racing operation (which was founded in California in 1948 by his father, E.B. “The Pie Man” Johnston and his wife, Betty) dating back to 1957, passed away unexpectedly one day shy of his 78th birthday last year on May 5.
“I’ll be forever grateful to Buddy Johnston and his family for the opportunity they’ve given me,” said Black, who was hired by Johnston as the farm’s private trainer following the retirement of longtime conditioner Don Warren last year. “Buddy has had his horses here in the same stalls since 1953. This is tradition with Old English Rancho.
“Mr. Johnston was so good to me, so to be able to win a stake like this is the start of a new era. Me and the (Johnston) family are moving on, so this was cool to win our first stake together.”
Black, who was reduced to tears in a post race interview with Michelle Yu on Santa Anita’s simulcast network, was joined in the Winner’s Circle by an equally emotional Mary Hilvers, who is the daughter of Bud and Judy Johnston.
“I grew up with this,” said Hilvers. “It’s amazing. Obviously, when we lost dad so unexpectedly and suddenly, there were questions about whether we’d be able to keep it (the family racing business) going…It’s a family thing. We really want to carry on my dad’s legacy and my grandmother’s.”
And, thanks in-part to Kenny Black and homebreds like What a View, the future appears bright for the red and white colors of Old English Rancho.
FINISH LINES: With rain falling by 7 a.m. Sunday morning and intensifying steadily as the day wore on, the main track was closed for training. Track Superintendent Dennis Moore and his crew sealed the track after Saturday’s last race. Sunday’s three scheduled turf races were moved to the main track . . . Simon Callaghan reports two of his major stakes stars, La Canada winner Taris and Kentucky Derby runner-up Firing Line, are both doing well. “Taris came out the race (on Jan. 16) really good,” the trainer said. “She’s been jogging and taking it easy, but we’ll build up her training for the (Grade I) Santa Margarita on March 19. We’ve got time on our side so we’ll wait for that. I’m happy with Firing Line (who hasn’t raced since the Preakness last May). He looks great. He’s been tack-walking and we’ll start jogging on the track next week.” . . . Live racing resumes at Santa Anita Thursday, with free General Admission and free general parking Thursday and Friday throughout the Winter Meet . . . Racing oddity: In three of seven career starts, Ipray, a four-year-old filly trained by Hector Palma in today’s fourth race, lost by identical margins of 7 ¾ lengths, the last two in a row.
Source: Santa Anita Park