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Accompanied by the rest of the contingent of California horses jetting in to contest Oaklawn Park’s Racing Festival of the South, Cupid settled in nicely on Wednesday afternoon as he readies for the biggest test of his young career.
The 2-1 morning line favorite in the field of 12 for the 80th running of the $1 million (G1) Arkansas Derby on Saturday has already proven an affinity for Oaklawn’s racing strip. Cupid, who is owned by the international racing and breeding conglomerate Coolmore and trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, was an impressive winner of the $900,000 (G2) Rebel Stakes here last time out.
Baffert, who captured the Arkansas Derby last year with eventual Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and in 2012 with Bodemeister, tightened the final screws on the son of Tapit at Santa Anita Tuesday morning when he sent him out for a final work under regular rider Martin Garcia. Cupid handled the 4 furlongs handily in 48.20.
“I haven’t seen Cupid regress,” said Baffert. “He’s come back (from the Rebel) well. He’s worked well. He went an easy half-mile, so he looks ready. I like what I saw. Martin is excited about the race and so am I.”
By virtue of his Rebel win, Cupid earned 50 Kentucky Derby qualifying points and is assured of a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. Additional merit never hurts and there are 100-40-20-10 more points up for the taking with a first through fourth Arkansas Derby finish.
Nonetheless, Cupid is being asked to stretch out an extra 1/16th of a mile for the first time, and has to demonstrate that he can stay the trip as his connections look ahead to the 1 1/4 mile Kentucky Derby. This is the stage along the Kentucky Derby trail where the pretenders fall by the wayside and only the contenders continue.
“He needs to run well. He needs to run the same race that he did the last time to be competitive. At a mile-and-an-eighth is when they separate themselves pretty well,” Baffert said.
Cupid, who was a late foal born in May of 2013, signaled that he could be something special when Baffert sent him around two turns for the first time in February at Santa Anita with Garcia in the irons. The colt dazzled that day with an easy win at 1 1/16 mile while graduating from the maiden ranks.
“He’s definitely shown that he’s not a sprinter. He’s come around quickly since January and matured a lot. He can be a bit of a handful. Like most Tapits, he can get excited. We’ve put a lot of work into him to keep him focused and in getting him to relax,” Baffert said.
Cupid, who is aptly named as his trainer said he’s “got that look” to him, has given his connections a lot to love and is sparking their Kentucky Derby dreams.
“It gets your competitive juices flowing. We’re sort of expected to be there,” said Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby four times (1997, 1998, 2002, 2015). “But it’s not easy. It’s hard. When you have a horse like Cupid who looks like he’s going to be competitive, it’s an honor. You say, ‘You know what? Maybe you have a little hope, a little dream there’. ”
But every horse still needs racing luck and Baffert has his fingers crossed that Cupid will break from break better than he did in the Rebel, when he got caught flat-footed. He and Garcia will depart from Post #10.
“We really got lucky last time. He can’t be doing that this time. He has to leave there with the field. He needs to get away from there a little bit better. He’s never really broken really good for some reason. He’s a very fast horse and he’s a beautiful, long-striding horse. His speed is his weapon so he needs to get away from there,” said Baffert. “We drew a great post. I’m happy with it. We’re excited about the Arkansas Derby.”
Effinex earned the decided favor of the Oaklawn Park oddsmakers, who installed him as the 2-1 early choice in the field of eight for Saturday’s $750,000 (G2) Oaklawn Handicap. The 5yo son of Mineshaft can count a Hall of Fame rider in his fan club as well.
“Mike Smith loves this horse,” said Kent Sweezey, the assistant to trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who accompanied the Grade 1 winner from New York and will give Smith a leg up on race day. “Mike’s first race on him was the Breeders’ Cup Classic and he ran second (behind 2015 Arkansas Derby Victor, Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year American Pharoah). Next time out they won (the G1 Clark Handicap), and then ran third (in the G1 Santa Anita Handicap last out.). When Mike got off him the first time, he said he wanted to ride this horse for the rest of his career.”
When Tri-Bone Stables’ Effinex contested the Big ‘Cap in his only previous 2016 start, 16-1 shot Melatonin got the best of him. Effinex gets another crack at that one in the Oaklawn Handicap, which will be run as the ninth race on the 11-race that includes the $1 million (G1) Arkansas Derby.
Tarbilla Farms’ Melatonin, the 7-2 co-second pick with $600,000 (G3) Razorback Handicap winner Upstart, arrived on Wednesday afternoon with the rest of the California-based horses competing in the Racing Festival of the South. Trainer David Hoffmans has given the return call to Joe Talamo, who has ridden here only twice before.
Meanwhile Effinex has had a few days to acclimate after shipping in on Monday and is bedding down, along with Upstart, in the barn of Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
“We walk him before we take him to the track. We borrowed Lukas’ pony and his exercise rider and we’re very appreciative but have to go on their schedule,” said Sweezey, who is overseeing Effinex as rkrkens remains at his New York base. “I’ve been around him for a year and a half, and he’s always been a really cool, laid back horse until it’s race day and then he absolutely perks up. We had him outside and he watched Wayne walk off with another horse and he absolutely threw a fit because that horse was going to the track and he wasn’t. I was walking him with just a chain on his nose and he was bucking and kicking and rearing up like I’ve never seen before. So I’d say he shipped in pretty good and is feeling pretty good.”
The multiple graded stakes-winning Effinex is healthy as the recent and mysterious case of hives that had plagued him since his trip to Santa Anita has now cleared up. It’s all systems go.
After jogging on Tuesday Effinex galloped on Wednesday morning and then had a schooling lesson in the paddock before walking across the track to the infield where the Festival stakes horses will be saddled.
“He put his head down and took a little bite of grass and got back on his toes. Schooling is done and we’ve checked that off,” said the assistant trainer.
Jerkens, the son of the late Hall of Fame trainer Allen Jerkens, is an old school horseman who likes to put a horse on his toes right before a big race. That’s next on the list.
“We’re going to breeze him tomorrow and then we’ll check that off and then take him to the gate on race day. We’ll just give him a blow-out down the lane, maybe just a quarter or so, just enough to give him some air because he’s done with his works. It’s just to give him something to do. That’s not unusual. We do it all of the time,” said Sweezey.
The connections of Effinex hooped he’d draw in the middle of the Oaklawn Handicap field, but he and Smith will have to go from post #8 in the field. The Todd Pletcher trained Blofeld drew the rail and is 4-1 on the the early line.
“It’s better the outside than inside and Pletcher drew the rail. He’s on the inside and we’re on the outside and it’s a long way around there. There’s a long enough run into the first turn. We’re not disappointed at all,” said Sweezey.
Ralph Evans and WinStar Farms’ Upstart, who made his long-awaited return to action a smashing success in the Razorback Handicap last out, looked glorious as he galloped around the oval on Wednesday after the break and during the time allotted to the Festival competitors.
“He’s at the top of his game right now. We know he really likes this track and he’s been very happy since we got back here,” said Melissa Cohen, trainer Rick Violette’s assistant who supervised Upstart’s previous Oaklawn experience. “This race came up pretty salty, but he’s got that race under his belt. That day he was as game as could be even though he caught the widest trip of all. He’s got that huge stride so it’s pretty deceiving how fast he’s going.”
Upstart will leave from post #6 with Joe Bravo back as his partner. Later on the card, Bravo will ride Calumet Farm’s homebred Luna de Loco, who is one of Hall of Fame nominated trainer Steve Asmussen’s two Arkansas Derby hopefuls along with WinStar’s Creator.
Blofeld was on the same flight from South Florida with stable mates Gettyburg and Decorated Soldier, Upstart and the Dale Romans-trained Unbridled Outlaw. Gettysburg and Unbridled Outlaw are Arkansas Derby hopefuls and Decorated Soldier is part of the 10-horse field for Saturday’s $150,000 Northern Spur Stakes for 3yos going one mile.
“All three of out horses are doing great,” said Adele Bellinger, the assistant to Pletcher. “They all went an easy mile this morning straight off and handled it well.”
Unbridled Outlaw was second here in allowance company on Rebel Stakes day in his only 2016 start following a break after running 12th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Oct. 31. He earned his spot in the Arkansas Derby field by running well against older horses and now is back competing against sophomores.
“It’s a perfect spot, right in the middle. We can break sharp and see what happens a lot better than being way outside,” Romans said.
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