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Trainers face tough calls for final Derby preps

Ron Flatter  
vsin.com

Justify_Benoit_photo
Justify, ridden by Mike Smith, won impressively in an allowance race for trainer Bob Baffert last Sunday at Santa Anita. He is expected to be entered into a Kentucky Derby prep next month.
© Benoit photo courtesy of Santa Anita Park.

LAS VEGAS--After this week it all seems so easy, doesn’t it? The shortest distance to the Kentucky Derby will be a nine-furlong path through a final, major prep race.

But if roads were that simple, they wouldn’t have invented GPS.

There are no better examples than Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and Steve Asmussen. Their barns are loaded with Derby contenders, but their success has a way of complicating things. Don’t bother asking them this early where they will send those 3-year-olds for their next races, because they may not even know yet. That does not, however, prevent us from asking ourselves.

The Baffert quandary will be complicated in a good way Saturday at 7:09 p.m. EDT if morning-line favorite Solomini (3-2), a three-time Grade 1 runner-up, wins the $900,000 Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Ark. The question is magnified through the prism of Baffert’s recent success in the Rebel, which he has won six of the last eight years.

The Rebel is annually the last 1 1/16-mile Derby prep that really matters. With a victory in his 3-year-old debut Solomini would join disqualified San Felipe winner McKinzie and Baffert’s flashy allowance winner Justify as short-priced betting options for the Kentucky Derby. So where might Baffert then send these three to test their legs for the first time over nine furlongs, the distance of each of their final preps over the next month?

The same question faces Asmussen – who is looking for his fourth Rebel win but only his first since 2007. He has the pace-setting Title Ready (8-1), the mid-pack-running Combatant (8-1) and deep closer Zing Zang (20-1) among the 11 colts taking on Solomini. While a victory would mean an automatic berth in the Kentucky Derby, it would also mean a trip back to the drawing board for the other two.

An obvious target for both Baffert and Asmussen comes in four weeks with the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn, but there would be little to gain in sending more than one serious Kentucky Derby contender from each barn into the race.

After last Saturday’s San Felipe, the obvious call from fans was to have a rematch between McKinzie and Bolt d’Oro on April 7 in the Santa Anita Derby – a week before the Arkansas Derby. This time maybe their duel would not be turned over to the stewards, who took down McKinzie’s number over an interference claim last Saturday and promoted Bolt d’Oro to an asterisked win.

But then came Sunday, when Justify lived up to his hype – some of it generated by Baffert himself – and ran a geared-down 1:35.73 over a sloppy mile to win an allowance race at Santa Anita.

“I hate to compare him to other horses right now,” said Justify’s jockey Mike Smith, who also rides McKinzie. “But doesn’t he remind you of Easy Goer back in the day with that big, powerful stride? There’s a lot of potential there.”

The prevailing thought now is that Baffert may send Justify into the Santa Anita Derby to take on Bolt d’Oro, whose owner/trainer Mick Ruis got a commitment this week from Javier Castellano to ride him again next month in California and presumably after that in Kentucky.

Since Justify has not raced in a Derby prep, he would need a win or maybe a second-place finish to qualify for Churchill Downs. Maybe then a duel with Bolt d’Oro might not be the best way forward.

As in the case of Asmussen’s also-rans in the Rebel, Baffert has to survey the prospective fields to choose a race, maybe even the Florida Derby in just two weeks or – less likely based on his history – the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct or the Blue Grass at Keeneland. Those two races are April 7, the same day as the Santa Anita Derby.

Bettors would certainly be wise to judge what each trainer is trying to do with each horse over the next month. Where Baffert puts Justify, for example, will go a long way toward shaping the odds and maybe even the field for that particular race. If other trainers catch wind of Baffert’s intentions for him, they may stay away if they can afford to do so.

It the end this is kind of like looking at that GPS and mapping out the route with the least traffic. Come to think of it, that is exactly what this is.

Racing notes and opinions

Hazit (5-1) and Ride A Comet (5-1) are the tepid, morning-line favorites for the $200,000 Grade 3 Jeff Ruby Steaks – formerly the Spiral – Saturday at 6 p.m. EDT at Turfway Park near Cincinnati. This wide-open, nine-furlong race will be run on Polytrack, making this a less-than-relevant Derby prep. Yes, Animal Kingdom used this on his way to winning at Churchill seven years ago, but that was an outlier. If Derby brass thought more of this race, it would be worth more than 20 points to the winner.

Mopotism (7-2) is favored to win the $400,000 Grade 1 Santa Margarita on Saturday at 7 p.m. EDT at Santa Anita. This nine-furlong race for older fillies and mares reunites the top finishers from January’s Grade 2 La Cañada, in which Mopotism, Mended (6-1) and La Force (6-1) finished 1-2-3. Trained by Doug O’Neill and ridden by Mario Gutiérrez, Mopotism finished a distant second last month in the Grade 2 Santa Maria to Eclipse Award winner Unique Bella, which might have been in this race were it not for a cough detected this week by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Unique Bella’s next stop may be next month’s Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park.

Withers winner Avery Island is hurt and now questionable for the Kentucky Derby. The Godolphin colt came out of a Florida workout hobbling last week. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said X-rays showed no structural damage, but he hit the brakes on further plans. Avery Island was 30-1 this week in Derby futures at the Wynn and 29-1 in last weekend’s third future wager at Churchill Downs.

Baffert’s Smarty Jones winner Mourinho had to be euthanized after a training injury Monday. The 3-year-old colt sired by Super Saver broke a sesamoid bone in a workout at Santa Anita. He had been 85-1 at the Wynn to win the Kentucky Derby.

Breeders’ Cup directors have met in a typical cloak of secrecy to discuss future sites and changes. Never mind that the Blood-Horse reported that after this fall at Churchill Downs, the next three Cups may be at Santa Anita, Keeneland and Del Mar. More bothersome is the ongoing discussion of a proposal to move the Breeders’ Cup Classic to December – leaving the rest of the card in November. The idea floated by director/celebrity chef Bobby Flay would be to get a TV date that is not swimming upstream against college football. But having horsemen and fans to add one more expensive travel date is just biting the hand that already feeds the sport.

Voters in Cypress, Calif., will be asked if they want to approve a 150-acre development on the site of Los Alamitos Race Course. A similar proposal narrowly failed two years ago. If this sounds familiar, it reeks of how Hollywood Park was zoned more than 10 years ago to be torn down for a commercial development. That development turned out to be the new stadium for the Rams and Chargers.

This racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Both of this week’s guests – Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens and former National Horseplayers Championship winner Michael Beychok – preview the Rebel Stakes and react to last week’s controversial finish in the San Felipe. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play Music and Stitcher.

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