With the San Felipe Stakes officially canceled for this season as Santa Anita struggles to resume operations, trainer Bob Baffert confirmed Sunday that his top two Kentucky Derby contenders, 2018 juvenile champ Game Winner and Improbable, will ship to Arkansas for next Saturday's $1 million Grade II Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.
Baffert said the duo worked satisfactorily Sunday morning at Los Alamitos. "We're coming," he told Oaklawn. "They worked well. Everything's good. There's no changing between now and then."
Game Winner and Improbable, both undefeated as 2-year-olds, were set to make their seasonal debuts in the San Felipe on Saturday. Instead, Santa Anita was closed while officials test the track in hopes of pinpointing the cause of a rash of fatal injuries to horses training and racing over the dirt and turf surfaces.
Oaklawn has held out the possibility of splitting the Rebel into two $750,000 divisions if enough horses are entered, which would let Baffert keep his stars apart.
"We never dreamed the day would come they would close down Santa Anita," Baffert said. "But we're getting through it. The main thing is that the 3-year-olds, they worked well. They're coming up there. I think it's very nice of them to want to split that race. That's the key thing."
Despite the San Felipe disappointment, three major Kentucky Derby preps still enlivened the weekend:
In Florida, Tacitus closed smartly through the stretch to win Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby by 1 1/4 lengths in just his third career start. Outshine ran evenly to finish second and the favorite, Pasco Stakes winner Win Win Win, got show money with a late rally. Tacitus, a gray Tapit colt trained by Bill Mott, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.90, a stakes record and just 0.25 second off the track record. The Juddmonte Farms homebred was making his first start since breaking his maiden at Aqueduct Nov. 10.
Mott, who also conditions Derby contenders Hidden Scroll and Country House, reported Sunday Tacitus came out of the Tampa Bay Derby in good shape and is likely to make his next start in the Grade II Wood Memorial April 6 at Aqueduct, the Grade II Toyota Blue Grass April 6 at Keeneland or the Grade I Arkansas Derby April 13 at Oaklawn Park. All are at a distance of a mile-and-an-eighth.
"He stepped up to the plate," Mott said, "and it looked like he has moved forward from his 2-year-old year. He has certainly matured and is going in the right direction."
In New York, Haikal chased down an embattled trio in deep stretch to win Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Gotham by 1 length. Mind Control was second and California invaders Instagrand and Much Better finished third and fourth after Much Better, one of Baffert's second team, set a hot early pace on a lone lead. Haikal, a Shadwell Stable homebred colt by Daaher, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.63. Rajiv Maragh rode for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. It was the colt's third straight win, all at Aqueduct and all around one turn.
McLaughlin reported Sunday morning all was well with Haikal and said the colt will be pointed to the $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial April 6. "He's won at 6 (furlongs), he's won at 7 and now he's won at eight," the trainer said. "So we're going to give him a shot at 9. I'll definitely be in town for that race."
The Kentucky Derby is contested at 10 furlongs, or 1 1/4 miles.
And in Kentucky, Somelikeithotbrown wasted little time seizing the lead in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks at Turfway Park and wasn't seriously challenged after the first half mile, coasting home first by 3 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Dynamic Racer and Moonster, both at long odds, filled out the trifecta. Somelikeithotbrown, a Big Brown colt, ran 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:52.05 with Tyler Gaffalione up. With a win over the course earlier in the Battaglia Memorial, he now boasts wins on both turf and all-weather surfaces but finished up the track in his lone try on dirt, an off-the-turf event at Saratoga.
"The pace was honest but it looked like he was doing it pretty handily," said winning trainer Mike Maker. "And he put the horse away that was contesting the lead with him down the lane. Tyler said he was ducking from the whip a little bit but he had a lot of horse left. With these two races, we'll look at the Blue Grass."
In a bit of irony, the sponsor of the Race, Jeff Ruby Steakhouses, arguably is a competitor with the winner's namesake, the Hot Brown sandwich made famous at the Brown Hotel in Louisville.
In days of old, the Rushaway Stakes was a companion to Turfway Park's main Kentucky Derby prep, whatever the name happened to be in a given year. This year's $75,000 renewal went to Onthewaytonevrland, an Irish-bred No Nay Never gelding trained by Wesley Ward. Onthewaytonevrland, with Rafael Bejarano up, pressured the 100-1 long shot pacesetter, took over and won easily by 3 1/2 lengths. Bundibunan was second, 2 3/4 lengths clear of Faraway Kitten. Onthewaytonevrland ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45.59.
After the smoke had cleared, Risen Star Stakes winner War of Will and Fountain of Youth winner Code of Honor remained atop the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" points list with 60 and 54 points, respectively. Haikal and Tacitus each earned 50 points to move into a tie for third. And Mind Control's points for second in the Gotham moved him into a tie with Game Winner for the fifth spot. Somelikeithotbrown earned 20 points, putting him in a three-way tie for eighth on the list.
The third pool of the Kentucky Derby Futures wager closed this weekend with "All Other 3-year-olds" still the favorite, at odds of 9-2. Game Winner and Improbable were tied as second-favorite at 6-1 despite the wrinkle in their schedules.
The Rebel is the only Derby prep offering points in the coming weekend schedule.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Chocolate Kisses, in a dramatic stretch run, came five wide to clear most of the field, then dove to the rail to run down pacesetting favorite Motion Emotion, winning the $200,000 Honeybee Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 1 length over that rival. Bizwhacks was third when her stretch drive stalled out. Chocolate Kisses, a Candy Ride filly trained by Mark Casse, had only one rival beaten midway down the backstretch, made up a lot of ground around the turn and still had much to do heading for home. She finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.78 under Orlando Mojica.
Chocolate Kisses now has won two straight starts since losing jockey Julien Leparoux in a stumble at the start of the Rags to Riches Stakes at Churchill Downs last Oct. 28. She earned 50 points toward a Kentucky Oaks start and trainer Mark Casse said he was expecting a good effort. "This fall she worked at Churchill as good as I've ever seen any one of our good 2-year-olds work there for us, for a filly. I had contemplated running her in the Breeders' Cup," he said.
Espresso Shot rallied from next-last in a field of nine to win Saturday's $250,000 Busher Stakes at Aqueduct by 3/4 length over Oxy Lady. Orra Moore and Please Flatter Me were another pair of heads behind in third and fourth. Espresso Shot, a Mission Mipazible filly, got 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.69 with Eric Cancel riding. It was her first win in open company but followed a victory in the restricted East View Stakes Dec. 29.
"It's pretty special," said Daniel Zanatta, managing partner of the syndicate that owns Espresso Shot. "We only buy New York-bred fillies. My dream is not to win the Kentucky Derby, my dream is to win the Kentucky Oaks with a New York-bred filly, and we're on our way. So it's very exciting."
Naughty Joker took the lead in the lane in Saturday's $100,000 Maxim Crane Works Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park and inched away to a 1 3/4-lengths victory. The early leader, Fun Finder, held second, 1/2 length to the good of New Roo. Naughty Joker, a Ken and Sarah Ramsey hombred Into Mischief filly, ran 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:40.08. Rafael Bejarano rode for trainer Wesley Ward. She won on the Churchill Downs dirt in her third career start last November and had been idle since.