Top West Coast 3-year-olds set for San Felipe

by | 03.08.2012 | 7:20am

Bob Baffert, who has trained the winners of nine Triple Crown races, faces a compelling challenge with Liaison and Bodemeister, his two entrants among ten 3-year-olds signed up for Santa Anita's Grade II, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on Saturday.

Liaison, who has earned $469,560 from 3 wins in 5 starts including last December's Grade I CashCall Futurity, will be trying to regain his elite status following a disastrous outing in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4. Bodemeister simply will be trying to prove that a stunning maiden victory can belatedly launch him into becoming a genuine Kentucky Derby principal.

Baffert had been planning to enter his provocative youngster Fed Biz — a consensus Top Five choice among Kentucky Derby prospects despite never having run in a stakes race — in the event that serves as the final stepping stone to the Grade I, $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 7. Six of the last 15 San Felipe winners have successively transitioned to the Santa Anita Derby. But early this week Fed Biz was struck by a setback.

“It's nothing serious,” said Baffert. “He tied up a little.” So into the breach to make his stakes debut has stepped Bodemeister, an Empire Maker colt named after Baffert's youngest son, Bode (pronounced Bodee). Bodemeister's name did not even appear among the original 139 nominees to the San Felipe or the Santa Anita Derby.

Owned by Zayat Stables, Bodemeister did not begin his career until running second in a 5 ½-furlong maiden event on Jan. 16. But when he stretched out to one mile on Feb. 11, the $260,000 auction purchase looked sensational. He ran the distance in 1:34 2/5, won by 9 ¼ lengths, and earned a robust Beyer speed rating of 101.

Even Baffert seemed nonplussed by the performance. “Bodemeister looked pretty damn impressive,” he said. “I'm sort of surprised by what he did, but this is the time of year that we want horses to surprise us. We were a little late getting him going, but I'll tell you one thing: I've never seen a slow, fit, seasoned 3-year-old win the Derby. You still have to have that talent.'

Yet no matter how much talent Bodemeister may possess, winning the Kentucky Derby off four career starts seems a monumental task. No horse who did not race as a 2-year-old has won the Derby since Apollo in 1882. And only one horse, Big Brown, has done so with four starts or less since Exterminator in 1918. Rafael Bejarano, the nation's third leading rider in terms of earnings who was due to ride Feb Biz, will rejoin Bodemeister instead.

Arnold Zetcher's Liaison, who will be handled by Martin Garcia, was the 3-2 favorite in the Lewis when misfortune struck. The headstrong son of Indian Charlie lost his rider, Bejarano, in the stretch after getting squeezed back and stumbling badly while in search of a fourth straight victory. Liaison nevertheless already was a beaten horse at the time of the incident. Baffert has been attempting to harness some of the swift colt's speed in preparation for the San Felipe.

The Baffert pair's opposition includes Creative Cause, impressive 3 ¼ length winner of last October's Grade I Norfolk Stakes; Empire Way, fast-closing runner-up to I'll Have Another in the Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes on Feb. 4; California-bred Rousing Sermon, third in the Lewis and second in the CashCall Hollywood Futurity; Midnight Transfer, winner of the San Pedro Stakes, and Blingo who is attempting to follow in the footsteps of 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo.

Mike Harrington may not have the vast wealth of 3-year-olds that Baffert maintains, but the 70-year-old trainer also will run a pair of leading contenders, Creative Cause and Empire Way, in the San Felipe.

Heinz Steinmann's Creative Cause, who has earned $539,000 with a 3-1-2 record in six starts, disappointed in his 2012 debut at odds of 1-2 in the Grade II San Vicente Stakes on Feb. 19.

Although he finished a non-threatening third, beaten a length in the seven furlong San Vicente, the strapping Giant's Causeway colt galloped out strongly, which should bode well considering the added distance of the San Felipe. After winning the Norfolk, the Harrington trainee stamped himself as a nationally prominent Derby candidate when finishing a game third, a length and a head behind Hansen and Union Rags in the $2 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 5. Santa Anita's leading rider, Joel Rosario, retains the mount.

Stablemate Empire Way, an improving Empire Maker colt also owned by Steinmann, turned in his best effort in four starts with a rousing finish and strong gallop-out as the runner-up in the Lewis at 1 1/16 miles. It was his first start on dirt. Brice Blanc has been named to ride Empire Way, an earner of $112,000.

Harrington did not originally intend to run both colts in the San Felipe. “The timing for both of them kind of dictates that I run them this weekend,” he said. He noted that the two have contrasting styles. “Creative Cause will lay close and the other horse will come from back,” said Harrington. “They won't interfere with each other as far as running styles; it's just that I need earnings for Empire Way and if the other horse beats him, I'm shooting myself in the foot. But you have to do what you have to do sometimes.”

Rousing Sermon, a son of Lucky Pulpit owned and bred by Mr. & Mrs. Larry D. Williams, relied on his closing style to win last October's California Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita before finishing second to Liaison in both the Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood Park and the Cash-Call Futurity. Joe Talamo will ride the chestnut colt for Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. Rousing Sermon has earned $298,000 from a 2-2-3 record in seven starts.

A late-developing son of Hard Spun, Midnight Transfer made the successful leap from maiden breaker to stakes winner in the Jan. 22 San Pedro at 6 ½ furlongs. Trained by Carla Gaines for Warren Williamson, Midnight Transfer will stretch out to a route for the first time with Victor Espinoza in the saddle.

Another 3-year-old attempting to use the San Felipe as a springboard to Santa Anita Derby contention is Blingo, who has not raced since closing well to be sixth in Hollywood Park's CashCall Futurity. Having been gelded appears to have increased Blingo's focus. “He's a gelding for a reason,” noted trainer John Shirreffs.

A son of Artie Schiller purchased by Jerry and Ann Moss for $80,000 as a yearling, Blingo races for the same connections as did Giacomo in 2005. Giacomo went from a second-place finish in the San Felipe to running fourth in the Santa Anita Derby before pulling off a 50-1 upset in the Kentucky Derby under Mike Smith.

The complete field for the San Felipe Stakes, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Blingo, Mike Smith, 118; Bodemeister, Rafael Bejarano, 118; American Act, Martin Pedroza, 118; Midnight Transfer, Victor Espinoza, 118; Groovin' Solo, Alonso Quinonez, 118; Liaison, Martin Garcia, 123; Creative Cause, Joel Rosario, 123; Rousing Sermon, Joseph Talamo, 118; Tiz Point, Garrett Gomez, 118, and Empire Way, 118, Brice Blanc, 118.

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