Trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Jerry Bailey teamed up to win Saturday's San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita with favored Rojo Toro, a newcomer to the 3-year-old picture, less than a month after the pair lost undefeated early Kentucky Derby favorite Vindication to injury.
Owned by Hal Earnhardt III, who campaigned Indian Charlie with Baffert to victory in the Santa Anita Handicap, Rojo Toro is undefeated in three starts. He completed the one-mile San Rafael in 1:35 4/5 on a track labeled good.
The Baffert-trained Spensive, ridden by Victor Espinoza, rallied from the back of the seven-horse pack to get second, about a length behind the winner. It was another two lengths back to Crowned Dancer and Alex Solis in third.
"This horse (Rojo Toro) has speed, but I knew he was going to be rank," Baffert said. "I told Bailey that if he wants to go, to just let him go.
"I wasn't even gonna run him until three days ago. When Omega Code came out, I thought why not take a shot? I don't know where we'll go next. I don't know how much distance he wants. I'll let Jerry (Bailey) tell me where he wants to ride him."
Baffert said Spensive may want more distance.
"He's a good horse but never seems to get the best trip," he noted."
Starting one post from the outside, Rojo Toro broke in third behind expected pacesetter Our Bobby V. and Sum Trick, racing three wide into the first turn. On the backstretch, the son of Mountain Cat pulled his way to the front, edging past Our Bobby V. after an opening quarter-mile in :22 2/5 and the first half-mile in :45 1/5.
The two raced as a team into the final turn in a six-furlong split of 1:09 2/5 before Rojo Toro began to pull away. Spensive, with Victor Espinoza riding, made a belated rally on the outside but shifted ground in mid-stretch and lost some momentum. Crowned Dancer was wide early but turned in an encouraging performance for his first race in more than seven months. Our Bobby V. held on to get fourth.
"He kind of didn't know what the first turn was about, and I had to give him his head to make the turn, and then he kind of ran off with me," Bailey said of the winner. "He has talent. This was his first time going two turns, and he's still undefeated. I can't knock him too much."
Espinoza was ecouraged by Spensive's effort.
"He ran an awesome race," the jockey said. "He tried very hard and I thought for a minute I was going to catch (Rojo Toro). I didn't have room to stay on the inside, and that's why I had to go around all those horses. It took a little time to get him back into the race because he's got a long, big stride. He's a good horse, though. His day is going to come."
Rojo Toro won his first two races in Kentucky, winning his last start at Churchill Downs on Nov. 17, a first-level allowance, by 3 1/4 lengths. He broke his maiden at Turfway in September by 9 1/2 lengths.
"This horse, he's a bit wild," said Baffert. "I let his exercise riders ride him in Kentucky because he's tough to handle. He got loose at Turfway Park after we worked him for the first time for half an hour."
Haras El Aguila SA bred Rojo Toro in Florida. A $120,000 Ocala 2-year-old purchase in April, the victory, worth $60,000, increased his career bankroll to nearly $90,000.
Rojo Toro paid $6.20, $3.40 and $3. Spensive returned $4.80 and $3.40. Crowned Dancer's show price was $5.40. The $2 all-Baffert exacta was $26.20.