Zensational, who has vaulted to the top of the national rankings for sprinters, goes for his third consecutive grade I win as the heavy favorite in the $300,000 Pat O'Brien Breeders' Cup Stakes at Del Mar Sept. 6.
The Pat O'Brien, which attracted a small field of six vying at seven furlongs on Polytrack, carries a "Win and You're In" designation for the Nov. 7 Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Santa Anita.
The speedy Zensational, if he can avoid pulling jockey Victor Espinoza too much in the early going, figures to be difficult to catch. The only 3-year-old in the line-up, Zensational carries top weight of 120 pounds against his elders.
But beating older horses hasn't presented much problem so far this year for the son of Unbridled's Song. Trained by Bob Baffert for owner Zayat Stables, Zensational took his rivals gate to wire in winning both Hollywood Park's Triple Bend Handicap (gr. I) July 5 and Del Mar's Bing Crosby (gr. I) Aug. 8. The gray/roan ridgling is on a three-race winning streak since Espinoza took over the riding chores, and he has won four of six starts overall, good for earnings of $429,300. He has been favored in every one of his races.
In the Pat O'Brien, Zensational will break from the No. 1 post position, which did not bother him in the Bing Crosby, where he was able to clear early and set the pace while slightly off the rail en route to a 1:08.57 clocking for three-quarters of a mile. He won the seven-furlong Triple Bend in a sharp Cushion Track time of 1:21.34.
In his lone loss this year, he was nailed in deep stretch by Quindici Man in a mile race at Santa Anita March 27. Zensational broke his maiden Feb. 2, also at the Arcadia, Calif., oval. Since his loss, Zensational has been kept at sprint distances.
There is speed to Zensational's outside in the form of Screen to Screen, who is also trained by Baffert and will be ridden by Rafael Bejarano. Screen to Screen, coming off a third-place finish in an optional claiming allowance, has won twice in 17 lifetime starts.
Talkin to Mom Roo, second to Zensational by 2 1/2 lengths in the Crosby, rated kindly that day and will have Garrett Gomez aboard for the O'Brien. Ted H. West trains the Texas-bred 6-year-old You and I gelding for Jeffrey Sengara.
Another danger to the favorite could be the deep closing Noble Court, who has not raced since rallying from last to finish third, one length behind Zensational, in the Triple Bend. Noble Court posted back-to-back stakes victories at Hollywood prior to that for Del Mar leading trainer John Sadler, including a half-length score in the Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III).
The closers Big Bad Leroybrown, from the Donald Warren barn, and Nikki'sgoldensteed, conditioned by Bob Hess Jr., are both coming off optional claiming scores over the Del Mar surface.
The 5-year-old Big Bad Leroybrown, no worse than third in his past five starts, appears to have regained his 2007 form when he tallied in Del Mar's Real Good Deal Stakes.
$300,000 Pat O'Brien Stakes (gr. I, Race 4, 2:30 p.m.), 3 & Up, 7 Furlongs (All Weather)
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Zensational (KY), V Espinoza, 120, B Baffert
2. Nikki'sgoldensteed (CA), J Talamo, 119, R B Hess, Jr.
3. Big Bad Leroybrown (CA), T Baze, 119, D Warren
4. Noble Court (KY), J Rosario, 119, J W Sadler
5. Screen to Screen (FL), R Bejarano, 119, B Baffert
6. Talkin to Mom Roo (TX), G K Gomez, 119, T H West