In a performance befitting the race's namesake, the Bob Baffert-trained Midnight Hawk stretched out to two turns in style, winning Saturday's Grade III, $100,000 Sham Stakes by 1 3/4 lengths under Mike Smith, thus stamping himself as a leading contender for the Grade I, $1 million Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
With two scratches out of the Sham, the field was reduced to four and 2-1 second choice Kristo, with Rafael Bejarano up, was sent to the lead going into the Club House, but was engaged immediately by Midnight Hawk, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred colt by Midnight Lute who was making only his second career start.
“It kind of turned into a match race today,” said Smith. “Today, more so than winning, I wanted to find out if he could go long…He proved he could. He's still a bit green down the lane. When the crowd screams…he thinks they're yelling at him and he gets scared.
“It's great to see a colt this talented with room to grow. That's what you want to have…There's room to grow here and that's really something to look forward to. For such a big, heavy horse he just floats over the ground.”
With no show wagering, Midnight Hawk, the prohibitive 2-5 favorite, paid $2.80 and $2.10.
Bred by Mike Pegram and owned by reigning Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, former Minnesota Vikings head coach Mike Tice (who just inked a deal with the Atlanta Falcons as their offensive line coach for the 2014 season), John Sikura's Hill ‘n' Dale Equine Holdings, Mike Kitchen and Pegram, Midnight Hawk picked up $60,000 for the win and most importantly, 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points.
“He was waiting a bit on horses but he came back, he didn't look like he was very tired,” said Baffert. “He wasn't blowing very hard, so that's a good sign. It's a good step. But that's the way Midnight Lute was. Midnight Hawk was ‘showing up' in the mornings, but you don't know until you do it (in the afternoon)…So far, so good, but we'll just take baby steps as we go and just have fun with him.”
Trained by John Sadler, Kristo appeared well beaten at the rail turning for home but battled back gamely when shifted to the outside by Bejarno. He paid $2.20 to place.
“It's pretty exciting,” said the burly 6'7” Tice, who played tight end for the Seattle Seahawks, Washington Redskins and Minnesota Vikings and dwarfed his fellow Winner's Circle celebrants. “It's nice to be part of a winner. Anytime you win it's exciting—In anything, tiddlywinks, horse racing or football.”
“We think he can get better,” said Sadler of Kristo, who made his fourth start in the Sham and had not run since an impressive maiden win Oct. 31. “We think he wants to run farther. That's not really the style we wanted to run today, but when it came up sort of like a match race, you're drawn inside of the other guy, what are you going to do? We had to run head to head all the way around, but he ran well.”
Bejarano tipped his cap to the winner. “The winner was much too fast. He lost ground on both turns and still beat me.”
Kristo finished 3 1/4 lengths in front of 10-1 shot Ontology, ridden by Mario Gutierrez, and it was another 9 1/2 lengths back to 13-1 shot I'll Wrap It Up and Tyler Baze.
Fractions on the race were 23.31, 46.33, 1:10.50 and 1:23.06.
The next major steppingstone to the Santa Anita Derby is the Grade II, 1 1/16 miles Robert B. Lewis Stakes Feb. 8.
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