Kentucky Derby prep season gets serious this weekend at Santa Anita
You can tell the Triple Crown season is getting serious when Santa Anita has a Kentucky Derby prep race with two horses each from the barns of Bob Baffert and Doug O’Neill.
This year that race is the Grade 3 $100,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes, which will run on a hopefully dried out dirt track on Saturday. The 1 1/16-mile race is pretty much a toss-up based on the morning line. Baffert has Medina Spirit (5-2) and Spielberg (7-2), and O’Neill sends Hot Rod Charlie (3-1) and Wipe The Slate (4-1).
The traditional lead up to the Kentucky Derby for horses who want to stay West starts with the Sham Stakes in January followed by the Robert B. Lewis Stakes near the start of February, although many trainers elect to do only one of those races. Then the San Felipe Stakes comes in March and the Santa Anita Derby in April. Medina Spirit is one of three in the eight-horse field that ran in the Sham. Medina Spirit finished second to stablemate Life Is Good.
Remember, Santa Anita and Los Alamitos have cancelled racing today and will resume tomorrow.
“This is the type of race we all want to win, but it’s also the start of a long journey that we hope will all lead to the first Saturday in May,” O’Neill said. O’Neill has won that first Saturday race twice. Baffert has won the race a record six times.
O’Neill’s best shot of returning to the Derby is with Hot Rod Charlie, who was regarded so little that he went off at 94-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 6 at Keeneland. He finished second. This came one race after he broke his maiden in his fourth try.
“The start before the Breeders’ Cup, we added blinkers and put some cotton in his ears just to get him more focused,” O’Neill said. “And he won a game race at Santa Anita going two turns. Since he’s got the Breeders’ Cup pedigree (half-brother to Mitole, winner of the Sprint in 2019) and the stamina, we thought we would try and enter him.
“But before the race, we weren’t in it. We were No. 14 and needed two horses to drop out and they did. So, we got lucky.”
One advantage the 3-year-old colt will have is jockey Joel Rosario, an Eclipse Award finalist. It will be his first time riding Hot Rod Charlie in a race.
“After the Breeders’ Cup, Tyler Gaffalione asked to ride him back and we liked that,” O’Neill said of the jockey who rode him in the race. “But as things got closer and with all the [COVID] protocols in place, Tyler would have had to miss a few days of racing to come out here.”
And so, the job fell to Rosario.
“In preparation, Rosario has been working him in the mornings,” O’Neill said. “Joel, just like us, has fallen in love with him. We’re excited to see how this works out.”
Baffert has won the Lewis a record eight times, including the last two years with Mucho Gusto and Thousand Words. O’Neill has won it twice, the last time with future Kentucky Derby winner I’ll Have Another in 2012.
Asked if Hot Rod Charlie is the best 3-year-old he’s had since Nyquist in 2016, his second Kentucky Derby winner, O’Neill paused.
“The fact that I can’t think of anyone, I guess the answer is yes.”
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