ELMONT, N.Y. – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert gave the hard-knocking Hoppertunity a change of scenery, and he responded with a determined effort to beat favored Effinex in Saturday’s Grade 1, $1 million Jockey Club Gold Cup.
In winning the Gold Cup – the zenith of a seven-stakes program on Super Saturday at the fall meet, Hoppertunity earned $600,000 for an ownership group headed by Mike Pegram, as well as an all-fees-paid berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He joined River Keen (1999) as Baffert’s second Gold Cup winner. Hoppertunity is now 6-6-4 from 22 starts, with earnings of over $3.5 million.
Hoppertunity was next-to-last in the field of five early, but well within striking range as Protonico sped to the lead from the inside through fractions of 24.87 and 49.03 seconds under constant pressure from Effinex to his outside. Effinex poked a head in front of Protonico after six furlongs in 1:12.18 and appeared to gain the upper hand turning for home, but Protonico dug in stubbornly on the rail, as Hoppertunity was guided to the outside by John Velazquez to make it three across the track a furlong from home.
As Protonico yielded in deep stretch, the 98th Gold Cup came down to a battle between the last two winners of the Grade 1 Clark Handicap, and Hoppertunity edged away to win by a half-length. It was another 2 ½ lengths back to Protonico in third.
“They told me he can be a little lazy the first part of the race, so I sent him out of there and made sure he was somewhere in the mix, not too far back,” said Velazquez, who has now won two straight Gold Cups after getting his first with Tonalist last year. “I knew that he’s always going around other horses and I wanted him to be inside, save all the ground I could and try to work my way out somewhere around the three-eighths pole, the quarter-pole, and it worked out that way.
“The only thing they told me is he doesn’t really run well around the turns,” he added. “I kept it in mind and hoped that I could keep him close enough when he gets around the turns without overdoing it, and he did everything I asked him to do. When I pulled him out, he responded.”
Under showery skies on a fast track, Hoppertunity ran 1 ¼ miles in 2:00.63 seconds, the second-fastest time in the Gold Cup’s last 13 runnings.
“The most important thing for ‘Hopper’ is that he was standing good and broke good and he was placed more forwardly in the race, especially on a slow pace, that’s probably why he was a little closer,” said assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes. “We always thought in our minds that he would like these big turns here, and this big, deep track where he would have a chance to come from behind. We didn’t want to run at home. This race is a mile and a quarter. You run in the Awesome Again, it’s a mile and an eighth. The horse wants distance – that was the main reason to come here.”
The $200,000 second-place share increased Effinex’s earnings to over $3.2 million, and closer to Funny Cide’s all-time total of $3,529,412 among New York-breds.
“I wonder if he really saw that other horse,” said trainer Jimmy Jerkens. “I don’t know if he really saw the horse until it was too late, because then he tried to fight back on. At the quarter-pole, he looked like he couldn’t lose.”
Added Dr. Russell Cohen of Tri-Bone Stables: “We’re in for the Breeders’ Cup. There’s no question about it, we’re going.”
The order of finish was completed by Mubtaahij and Watershed.