No trainer has a better hand than Bob Baffert in the early stages of the Kentucky Derby poker game. But no trainer is playing his hand closer to the vest, either.
Baffert has undefeated Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Vindication in training at Santa Anita in Southern California but hasn't yet said where or when that colt may make his 3-year-old debut.
And even when Baffert saddled BC Juvenile runner-up Kafwain to win Saturday's $150,000 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita, he still wasn't spilling any beans about plans for his deep and talented 3-year-old crop.
"Every week is different to see how they're doing," Baffert said. "You can't think too far ahead in this business. Just keep 'em happy."
Kafwain had little difficulty dispatching four rivals in the San Vicente. Running from slightly off the pace, he ranged up four-wide on the turn to take the lead when asked and drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths, ridden out. Sum Trick, who last won in New Mexico's vastly enriched program, was second and Southern Image was third.
"He reminds me of (1997 San Vicente and Kentucky Derby winner) Silver Charm," Baffert said of Kafwain, a son of Cherokee Run, winner of the 1994 Breeders' Cup Sprint. "He's a big, heavy horse and a beautiful-moving horse. Usually you have to nudge on him to get him going. Today he just did it on his own and he's been working that way. So that's really encouraging. I think he's matured a lot."
Winning rider Victor Espinoza, who urged Kafwain over 7 furlongs in 1:21.12, said the colt "will come back and run long again the next time and we'll see what he can do."
Baffert has at least five other 3-year-olds in his Santa Anita barn with a chance to make noise in the Derby preps. Some of them are likely to ship for opportunities on the East Coast, the Louisiana-Arkansas circuit or Kentucky.
--At Turfway Park in northern Kentucky, Champali turned back a challenge on the backstretch and then drew off with a second effort to win Saturday's $50,000 WEBN Stakes by 2 3/4 lengths over Chicken Soup Kid. Honeagle was third. Champali, a Kentucky-bred son of Glitterman, was ridden by Jason Lumpkins, covering the 1 mile in 1:40.51. The colt's name refers to Muhammad Ali, who was raised in Louisville as Cassius Clay. Champali now has five wins from six lifetime starts and is expected to continue along the Turfway trail leading to the Lane's End Spiral Stakes on March 22.
--Robledo wore down heavily favored pace-setter Siberland to win Saturday's $100,000 Turf Paradise Derby by 3/4 length in a virtual match race. Double Intrigue was third, 17 3/4 lengths down the stretch at the finish. Robledo, a Kentucky-bred son of Robannier, ran 1 1/16 mile in 1:41.74 under David Flores. Robledo was pulled up in his last start, the Jan. 18 Santa Catalina Stakes, after being bumped hard at the start. He now has won half of his six starts for trainer Vladimir Cerin.
--Triple Crown Production announced during the weekend a record 446 early nominations to this year's Triple Crown, which carries a $5 million bonus from Visa for any horse sweeping the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. Trainer Todd Pletcher nominated 28; D. Wayne Lukas, 23; Baffert, 17; and Ken McPeek, 11. Godolphin Racing led all owners with 19 horses nominated, all trained by Saeed bin Suroor. Early nominations cost $600. Late nominations, due by March 29, cost 10 times that amount.
--Next week on the Triple Crown trail: On Saturday, the 1 1/16-mile Whirlaway Stakes at Aqueduct, a prep for the Gotham and the Wood Memorial; on Sunday, the Golden State Mile at Golden Gate Fields.
Kentucky Oaks preps
--At Tampa Bay Downs on Saturday, Ebony Breeze split rivals at the quarter pole in the $50,000 Gasparilla Stakes, then survived a long drive to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Crimson and Roses. Splasha was third. Ebony Breeze, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Belong to Me, ran 7 furlongs in 1:25.01. She is trained by Bill Mott for George Steinbrenner's Kinsman Stable. Breaking from post No. 12, jockey Joe Judice took Ebony Breeze back and waited for room. "I saw a hole inside when they fanned out turning for home and I went for it," he said. Assistant trainer Kenny McCarthy said a "logical" next race would be the 1 1/16-mile Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay on Feb. 22.
--Sunday at Gulfstream Park, House Party trailed all four of her competitors into the stretch in the $100,000 Old Hat Stakes. But when jockey Jose Santos angled the French Deputy filly out for room, she surged right to the lead and won by 1 1/2 lengths over favorite Chimichurri. Glorious Miss was third. The 6 furlongs went in 1:10.81. "I think she'll go on," said winning trainer Allen Jerkens. He said the 7-furlong Forward Gal on March 14 might be the next race for House Party.
--Harbor Blues had everything but a walkover in Saturday's $75,000 Arizona Oaks at Turf Paradise. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Petionville went quickly to the front and was never challenged, winning by 11 1/2 lengths over Myofficewife. Iggy Puglisi rode Harbor Blues over 1 1/16 mile on a fast track in 1:43.44.
The top older horses in North America are starting to sort themselves out. But with uncertainty about travel to the March 29 Dubai World Cup because of the war jitters around Iraq, their immediate futures are a bit up in the air.
Medaglia d'Oro, making his first start since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Classic last fall at Arlington Park, made short work of five 4-year-old rivals in Saturday's $400,000 Strub Stakes at Santa Anita. The El Prado colt led almost all the way and won by 7 lengths, ridden out by Jerry Bailey. Olmodavor was second and Tracemark third. "I thought he had improved," said winning trainer Bobby Frankel. "But you never know until you run them. It looks like he's on the right track now. I'm leaning towards the Dubai Cup but who knows with what's going on with the war. So if that doesn't work out, maybe the Santa Anita Handicap." Medaglia d'Oro won the Jim Dandy and the Travers last summer after a disappointing Triple Crown effort.
Sunday, older horses duked it out over the same track in the $250,000 San Antonio Handicap and Congaree was the clear winner. The 5-year-old son of Arazi came from just off the pace to draw clear in the stretch and win by 2 1/3 lengths over Milwaukee Brew. Pleasantly Perfect was third. Congaree, now has won his last four main-track starts. For his next race, said winning trainer Baffert, "Dubai would be the first option if he's doing great. I'm hoping for George W. (Bush) to hold off but that's a long ways off."
Bailey, who would have to choose between Congaree and Medgalia d'Oro if both race in the World Cup, has been to Dubai many times. "Whenever I've gone there, I've flown over Iraq and Iran, so we know about the possible dangers," he said. "But if Sheikh Maktoum or his people say it's safe to go, I'll go."
--In Arizona, Century City had to fight for running room in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Turf Paradise Breeders' Cup Handcap. But when jockey Laffit Pincay Jr. found running room for the 4-year-old son of Danzig, he advanced on the outside and was just up to beat Irish Warrior by a neck. Hataab was third, another neck back. Century City, trained by Beau Greeley, ran 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:42.54.
In other weekend racing:
Mystery Giver took the outside route around the final turn in Saturday's $150,000 Fair Grounds Breeders' Cup, then surged clear in the stretch run to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Dynameaux. Freefourinternet was third. Mystery Giver, an Illinois-bred son of Dynaformer, ran the "about" 9 furlongs on the grass in 1:50.41 under Robby Albarado. "When I asked him, he gave me a huge burst of energy," said Albarado. "He won easily and continued to gallop out well after the race." Trainer Richard Sherer said Mystery Giver probably will be pointed to the $700,000 Explosive Bid Handicap on March 23.
Sunday, Cypress Cove cruised to an easy, 2 1/4-length victory in the $80,000 Fair Grounds Sales Stakes. With Shane Sellers in the irons, Cypress Cove finished the 1 mile over the main track in 1:40.62. Zarro was second and Bridlestone, the only filly in the field of 12, finished third.
Gal O Gal, rallying from last in a field of eight in Saturday's $100,000 Herecomesthebride Stakes, was caught behind horses at the top of the stretch run. So when jockey Christopher DeCarlo found room on the hedge, he took the opportunity. His mount, a Florida-bred daughter of Manlove, made the most of it, outdueling Formal Miss in the final strides to win by 1/2 length. Devil at the Wire was 2 lengths farther back in third. "I had nowhere else to go," said DeCarlo. "The rail was the only place there was room to get through. ... If I didn't have enough horse, I wouldn't have tried it. But I knew she could do it from there." Gal O Gal finished the 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:42.38 and trainer Vinnie Blengs said she is due for a short break.
Golden Gate Fields
Lindsay Jean tracked pace-setting Neon Queen through the early going in Saturday's $100,000 Brown Bess Handicap, then took command at the top of the lane and edged clear to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Bush Triumph closed well to beat Crazy Ensign by a nose for second-place money. Lindsay Jean, a 5-year-old, Florida-bred daughter of Saint Ballado, ran 1 1/16 mile on yielding turf in 1:44.35. "She relaxed nicely and I didn't really ask her to run until the eighth pole," said winning jockey Chad Schvaneveldt.
A.P. Indie, at 52-1 the longest chance in the field in Saturday's $75,000 Correction Handicap, found room on the rail in the stretch to take the lead and got home first, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of the favorite, Shawklit Mint. Golden Made was third. A.P. Indie, a 5-year-old Star de Naskra mare, ran 6 furlongs in 1:11.10. "I've been getting on this filly in the morning," said trainer Jason Servis. "It may sound insane to say, but I was very confident bringing her over. She's a very sound filly."
Ciento stalked the pace on the inside on the run down the backstretch in Sunday's $125,000 New Mexico State University Handicap, got running room into the stretch and easily got clear to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Star Smasher was second as the favorite and Runmore Mema was well back in third. Ciento ran the 1 mile in 1:37.73 under jockey Sal Gonzalez. Ciento now has defeated Star Smasher twice in three meetings and the two are likely to face off again in the City of Las Cruces Handicap on March 15.
Oak Hall cruised home a 4 1/2-length winner in Saturday's $75,000 Bayou State Stakes for Louisiana-breds. The 7-year-old Olympio gelding trailed most of his six rivals in the early going, swung wide on the final turn and easily drew clear. Zarb's Luck was second and Itsacryingshame was third. The 7 furlongs took 1:24.40.
Boxer Girl and Coquettish dueled through the final three furlongs of Saturday's $60,000 Jameela Stakes for state-bred 3-year-old fillies before Boxer Girl got command and drew off to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Wonderous Woman closed well on the outside to beat Coquettish for third. Boxer Girl, a daughter of Two Punch, finished the 7 furlongs in 1:24 2/5 under Oliver Castillo.
Beau's Town jumped out to an early lead and extended it to a 4 1/2-length victory in Saturday's $50,000 King Cotton Stakes. Honor Me finished second and Padlock was third. Beau's Town, with Tony Lovato up for trainer Norman Cole, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.16. "We never considered a prep race," said Cole. "He runs well fresh."