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The Bob Baffert-trained Arabian Lion won the 2023 Woody Stephens Stakes (G1) at Belmont Park. Could a try in the $1 million Haskell Stakes (G1) at Monmouth Park be next for this Justify colt? Tell us YOUR thoughts in the Comments section!
Zedan Racing Stables’ Arabian Lion, an impressive two-turn stakes winner in his prior start, handled the cutback to sprinting with aplomb and became a Grade 1 winner in the process with a decisive 1 3/4-length triumph in Saturday’s $400,000 Woody Stephens presented by Mohegan Sun at Belmont Park.
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The 39th running of the seven-furlong Woody Stephens for 3-year-olds was the fifth of nine graded-stakes and second of six Grade 1 events worth a total of $5.25 million in purses on a 13-race program highlighted by the 155th renewal of the Grade 1, $1.5 million Belmont Stakes presented by NYRA Bets.
Ridden by John Velazquez for Bob Baffert, both members of the National Museum of Racing’s Hall of Fame, Arabian Lion covered the distance in 1:21.70 over a fast main track to earn his second straight win following a four-length victory in the 1 1/16-mile Sir Barton May 20 at Pimlico on the undercard of the Grade 1 Preakness.
It was the third Woody Stephens victory for Baffert, following American Anthem in 2017 and Bayern in 2014. Velazquez previously won the Woody Stephens aboard Munnings in 2009. Sent off as the 2-1 favorite, Arabian Lion returned $6.70 for a $2 win bet.
“This horse, I’ve always been so high on, he’s just been slow to come around,” Baffert said. “[Owner] Amr Zedan, he let me be patient with him and now we’re getting rewarded with the way he ran.”
Arabian Lion broke sharply under Velazquez, who was content to drop back and save ground inside when outrun to the lead by Federal Judge, undefeated in two previous starts, and making his stakes debut. Federal Judge and jockey Flavien Prat cruised through a quarter-mile in 22.65 seconds pressed to his outside by multiple stakes-winner Drew’s Gold, sporting a perfect 4-0 record.
The half went in 45.64 with Federal Judge still in front and chased by Drew’s Gold with Gilmore, placed in back-to-back graded stakes, having joined the closest pursuit and Velazquez biding his time along the rail. Federal Judge rounded the turn on the lead and straightened for home with Drew’s Gold moving into a challenging position.
“He broke well,” Velazquez said. “He got outrun right away so I sat behind the leaders. When I asked him to do it down the lane, he responded right away. He is a nice horse.”
Behind the top two, Velazquez tipped Arabian Lion off the rail into the four path and set his colt down for a drive to wire, surging to the lead in mid-stretch and sprinting clear for his second consecutive victory and third from seven starts. Drew’s Gold finished second, three-quarters of a length ahead of Gilmore, with Federal Judge another 7 1/4 lengths back in fourth.
Gun Pilot, General Jim, Victory Formation, Fort Warren, Dark Vector and Arman completed the order of finish. New York Thunder, Harrodsburg [who got loose in the paddock] and Fort Bragg were scratched.
“He hopped a little at the start,” Drew’s Gold jockey Jose Gomez said. “Other than that, he got his feet underneath him pretty quickly and I got a pretty clear trip. I tried to wait as long as I could, but that 3 horse [Arabian Lion] just blew right past us.”
Bred in Kentucky by Bonne Chance Farm, Arabian Lion is a chestnut son of 2018 Triple Crown champion Justify, also trained by Baffert. Out of the Distorted Humor mare Unbound, Arabian Lion fetched $600,000 as a 2-year-old in training last April, and the $220,000 winner’s share of the purse nearly doubled his lifetime earnings to $437,600.
Arabian Lion broke his maiden at first asking last October at Santa Anita and was fifth as the favorite behind Practical Joke in his stakes debut, the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity, third time out. He began this year running fourth in the Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis in February and second in the Grade 3 Lexington on April 15, each of his last four races coming at 1 1/16 miles.
The Sir Barton proved to be a breakthrough race for Arabian Lion, who led every step of the way to win by four lengths in 1:41.13 and be put briefly under consideration for the Belmont.
“I could see the race didn’t take much out of him,” Baffert said. “He had two easy works. In the paddock, I could tell he was just [doing well]. He’s learning, too. He sat behind horses today, so he’s figuring it out.”
Baffert said the Grade 1, $1 million Haskell Invitational on July 22 at Monmouth Park could be a logical next target for Arabian Lion.
“He’s a Haskell contender, along with Arabian Knight,” he said. “One of the Arabians will be there.”
Baffert did not rule out a return to New York for Saratoga’s Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers on August 26.
“That’s so far off right now. We have other horses that are just coming back. We got [Grade 1 winner] Cave Rock and some other good ones coming back,” he said. “Right now, I’m just going to enjoy this Grade 1 victory. It’s great to be back here. Nothing like winning in New York. It means so much to the horse and the connections and I feel great about it.”
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