Judgment Time in San Felipe for Griffin, Baffert

Judgment Time in San Felipe for Griffin, Baffert
Photo: NTRA/Horsephotos
Perennial Derby player Bob Baffert sends out "last hope for this season" as Air Commander faces five in Saturday's San Felipe.

(from Santa Anita report)
Show business entrepreneur Merv Griffin, whose Derby hopes were dashed last year, and trainer Bob Baffert, a fixture on the Triple Crown trail since 1996, each reach the crossroads of their aspirations this year in Saturday’s $250,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) at Santa Anita.

Griffin, whose 2005 Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) champion Stevie Wonderboy was injured in his Derby pursuit last year, is back with the flashy but lightly raced Cobalt Blue, who will have to prove his distance capabilities in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. Trained by Doug O'Neill, Cobalt Blue has not raced beyond six furlongs.

Baffert, who has raced 16 horses in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) since 1996 while winning three, might be down to his 2007 hole card with Air Commander, who has won a pair of route races in his last two starts and has received an endorsement from Garrett Gomez, Santa Anita’s leading jockey.

Gomez, who has ridden Air Commander three times and was victorious aboard Cobalt Blue in that colt’s last start, has opted to ride Baffert’s bay son of 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given   in the 70th running of the San Felipe. Point Given won the San Felipe for Baffert during his championship season as a 3-year-old.

“Not taking anything away from Cobalt Blue,” said Gomez, “but I think right now he might be a little behind some of these colts. Air Commander has run two turns three times now, and that gives him an advantage in my mind.”

Baffert acknowledges that Air Commander might be his last hope this Derby season. “The only Derby I’m going to right now is the Derby restaurant,” he told Daily Racing Form. But he is hoping to get back into the hunt via the San Felipe, which drew a compact field of six 3-year-olds.

“The raw talent is there,” Baffert said of Air Commander, owned by breeder Robert N. Clay and Faisal Salman. “We just keep waiting for him to put it all together. He’ll tell us a lot this week.”

Victor Espinoza, Santa Anita’s second leading rider, takes over on Cobalt Blue. Griffin plans to be on hand Saturday.

“Merv’s on cloud nine already about Cobalt Blue,” commented O’Neill, Santa Anita’s leading trainer. A Florida-bred son of Golden Missile   who is bred for distance, Cobalt Blue was purchased for $325,000 at the Fasig-Tipton February sale last year.

Rafael Beccera entered longshot Dee Rain, a son of 1995 San Felipe winner Afternoon Deelites. “We’re taking a shot,” the trainer admitted, “but he tries hard, and he’s doing well. He finished second to (San Felipe rival) Level Red.”  Keith Barnacastle and Don Zimmerman of Palm Springs own Dee Rain.

The San Felipe will be the ninth race on a 10-race program that begins at 12:30 p.m. with a scheduled post time of 4:44 p.m.

$250,000 San Felipe Stakes (gr. II, Race 9, 4:44 p.m.)
3-Year-Olds, 1 1/16 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey
1. Tap It Light (CA), Michael C. Baze
2. Cobalt Blue (FL), Victor Espinoza
3. Dee Rain (KY), Clinton L. Potts
4. Air Commander (KY), Garrett K. Gomez
5. Grapelli (KY), Richard Migliore
6. Level Red (KY), Aaron T. Gryder
Each assigned 116 pounds.

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