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Stevens Seeks to Duplicate Win

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The 1990s have shown that a horse doesn’t need to win his final prep race to win the Kentucky Derby. But with few exceptions, a horse doesn’t win a Derby without having won as a 3-year-old, and that means the pressure is on the next several weeks at Santa Anita.

The Southern California road to Churchill Downs on May 2 picks up steam Sunday with the $200,000 San Rafael Stakes at a mile, and later come the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe on March 14 and the 1 1/8-mile Santa Anita Derby on April 4. The whole idea is to prepare horses for the Kentucky Derby’s grueling 1 1/4 miles, only nine weeks away.

Trainer Bob Baffert, who came within a nose of winning the Derby with Cavonnier in 1996 and then collected the roses last year with Silver Charm, has had his 3-year-old ranks thinned by injuries but still has a few highly regarded shooters left. Leading the list is Souvenir Copy, who is in need of a confidence builder in the San Rafael.

Baffert, whose losses include Pleasant Drive and Tahoe Prospector, says jockey Gary Stevens is the necessary ingredient for returning Souvenir Copy to the victory circle.

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“Gary knows how to ride this horse,” Baffert said. “I’m happy that he’s back on him.”

The last time Souvenir Copy won, in the Norfolk at Santa Anita in October, Stevens was aboard. With Stevens obligated to other horses since then, Souvenir Copy has been fourth under Chris McCarron in the roughly run Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and finished second with Kent Desormeaux in the Santa Catalina Stakes on Feb. 1.

For a horse with such promise, the well-bred Souvenir Copy has already had four jockeys for his six races. Corey Nakatani rode him when he broke his maiden at Del Mar last August, Desormeaux has also had two cracks and McCarron rode John and Betty Mabee’s colt to victory in the Del Mar Futurity. The Norfolk has been Souvenir Copy’s only race with Stevens, who rode Silver Charm to his hair-raising wins in the Derby and Preakness last year.

“I don’t know what it is, but jocks are always getting off my horses,” Baffert said.

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Artax, the horse that beat Souvenir Copy by 5 1/2 lengths in the Santa Catalina, is scheduled to run in the San Felipe. Other horses running Sunday include Late Edition and Orville N Wilbur’s, who couldn’t beat Sea Of Secrets in the San Vicente on Feb. 7. Sea Of Secrets, undefeated in three starts, has an infection that has knocked him out of the San Rafael. Trainer Neil Drysdale is hoping to have him ready for the San Felipe.

Here is Sunday’s field, in post-position order with jockeys: Orville N Wilbur’s, Nakatani; Mr. Fortune, Victor Espinosa; Magical, Brice Blanc; Futuristic, Alex Solis; Souvenir Copy, Stevens, and Late Edition, David Flores.

Pat Day, who will be in town next weekend to ride Gentlemen against Silver Charm in the Santa Anita Handicap, was unable to take the mount on Late Edition because of a stakes commitment at Gulfstream Park.

In the 1990s, the best omen for a trainer has been for his horse to lose the race before the Kentucky Derby. The only horse this decade to win the Derby off another win was Strike The Gold, whose successful prep was the Blue Grass at Keeneland in 1991.

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Carrying 127 pounds, which is 13 to 16 pounds more than any of his six rivals, Skip Away is a 3-5 morning-line favorite in today’s $500,000 Gulfstream Park Handicap. A horse hasn’t won the race with 127 pounds since Forego in 1974.

Horse Racing Notes

Gary Stevens, who won four races Friday, rides Donna Viola in today’s Buena Vista Handicap. Donna Viola, who has earned almost $1 million, hasn’t run since August, but the 6-year-old mare is tough at Santa Anita, where she won the 1996 Yellow Ribbon and the 1997 Santa Barbara Handicap. . . . Ben Cecil will also saddle her entry-mate, Queen Maud, who is making her first start since running 15th in the Arc de Triomphe in October.

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