Hollywood Park Race Report: New Star

Racing experts say no two races are identical. But for the owner/trainer team of Mike Pegram and Bob Baffert, the feature races at Churchill Downs and Hollywood Park June 16 looked deceptively the same.

At Churchill, the duo who brought us Triple Crown candidate Real Quiet three years ago watched as Captain Steve dueled with longshot Guided Tour in the $750,000 Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. II). Captain Steve, who scored a victory in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), came up a half-length short of Guided Tour, possibly still tired from the long trip back to the United States.

Over 2,000 miles away, another Pegram/Baffert horse, Love At Noon, couldn't hold off a hard-charging Starrer in the $100,000 Princess Stakes (gr. II). The winning connections admitted they wouldn't have entered the race reserved for 3-year-old fillies if starlet Golden Ballet had shown up.

A career-ending injury to Golden Ballet left the 1 1/16-mile Princess, a prep for the Hollywood Oaks (gr. I), without a marquee name. That didn't stop Starrer from showing why she is quickly climbing to the top of the filly division.

The last previous start for the daughter of Dynaformer was the Railbird Stakes (gr. II), where she lost to Golden Ballet by four lengths. Although she has finished in the money in all six of her starts, she had only posted one minor stakes win, in the Santa Paula Stakes at Santa Anita.

Golden Ballet's retirement also paved the way for Hall of Fame jockey Chris McCarron to get the mount aboard Starrer. McCarron, who has been winning stakes about as often as the Seattle Mariners are winning baseball games this year, was Golden Ballet's regular rider. Approached by two trainers eying the Princess, he chose Starrer.

"I wound up with the mount on her (instead of Affluent) after Ron McAnally was on the fence about whether or not he was going to run in this race or a mile-and-a-quarter turf race," McCarron said. "When Dave Hofmans asked us to ride Starrer, I thought I better not wait for Ron to make his decision, and we gave Dave the call."

On race day, however, bettors were keen on Love At Noon, a daughter of Afternoon Deelites, who set a track record at Churchill Downs on Derby Day for 6 1/2 furlongs. Two triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures forced her odds to 3-5.

When the gates opened, it was Affluent, a cagey filly and three-time loser to Golden Ballet, who took the lead. Love At Noon was close behind while McCarron tucked Starrer along the rail. He knew going around the first turn he had a good shot.

"She broke a little slowly, but got into the race right away, and she was pretty aggressive around the first turn," McCarron said. "She stayed in the bridle all the way."

Clicking off fractions of :23.29 and :46.27, Affluent was overtaken by Love At Noon at the three-eighths pole. Jockey Gary Stevens admitted after the race he may have moved his filly too early, which compromised a potential victory.

"I had to commit a little earlier than I would have liked going into the turn," he said. "It was probably too early, but she ran a real game race."

As Love At Noon made a sweeping turn for home, Starrer was making her bid some five lengths back. Starrer appeared to be trapped along the rail, but once a hole opened up she made a furious bid at Love At Noon. Starrer was gobbling up ground quickly and in deep stretch Love At Noon watched as Starrer crossed the finish line first by 1 1/2 lengths.

Hofmans breathed a sigh of relief. He indicated he has been waiting to send Starrer out over the grass but couldn't pass up an opportunity in the Princess once Golden Ballet was no longer a threat.

"We want an excuse to run her on the turf but we just can't find one right now," Hofmans said, watching the replay. "This filly I ran today was a little green. When she learns how to run, she's going to be a really nice filly."

Hofmans said he will point Starrer toward the Hollywood Oaks. As for the grass, that option can wait. There are more riches to be found along the 3-year-old campaign.


SHOWDOWN AT SUNDOWN

It wasn't touted as an Alydar/Affirmed matchup, but the second meeting between Until Sundown and Bayou the Moon had all the fixings of a good battle.

The two 3-year-old colts clashed a month ago in the Alydar Stakes, with Bayou the Moon winning by a neck. The race was possibly a small homage to the last Triple Crown winner and his nemesis who fought each other more than 20 years ago.

So it was no secret to fans a rematch in the 1 1/16-mile Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) June 17 could produce a similar outcome. But Until Sundown wanted no part of Alydar's runner-up legend. After the defection of speedball Early Flyer, who was coming off a victory in the Lazaro Barrera Memorial Stakes (gr. III), Until Sundown was sent off as the slight, even-money favorite.

Stevens sent Until Sundown to the front, although trainer Laura de Seroux gave specific instructions to sit off the lead.

"He made the lead easier than I wanted," Stevens said. "I didn't want to be on the lead but I couldn't help it."

The fractions were nothing spectacular -- :24.13 for the quarter and :47.95 for the half -- but turning for home Until Sundown kept the lead while waiting for a challenge from Bayou the Moon. Instead it was Arizona invader Top Hit, winner of the Christmas Futurity and Palos Verde Handicap at Turf Paradise. The son of Twining was running hard down on the rail while Until Sundown was faltering a bit.

Good racehorses seem to find another gear and Until Sundown managed to fend off Top Hit, although lugging in a bit to win by a neck. After the race, a tired Stevens knew he and his mount had earned their keep.

"I think my horse lost his attention about the sixteenth pole," said a sweat-covered Stevens. "We got attacked from both sides but he responded. This colt is very nice and is responding well right now."

The next logical step for Until Sundown will be the $500,000 Swaps Stakes (gr. I) on July 15 but the competition will be stronger. Pointed to the race are Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I) winner Millennium Wind, Kentucky Derby and Preakness (both gr. I) third Congaree, and San Rafael Stakes (gr. II) winner Crafty C.T.

Hollywood officials announced that the Swaps purse will be bumped up another $100,000 if Preakness and Belmont (gr. I) winner Point Given or Kentucky Derby victor Monarchos enters the gate. Bob Baffert said he will wait to see how Point Given responds after the grueling Triple Crown campaign before selecting the colt's next race. As for Monarchos, trainer John Ward Jr. has pointed another talented 3-year-old, Hero's Tribute, toward the Swaps but his commitment remains unclear.

The immediate future of Point Given and Congaree aren't clear with the recent decision by the California Horse Racing Board to suspend trainer Bob Baffert for 60 days.

If Point Given and Until Sundown both run in the Swaps, Stevens will have to choose between the best 3-year-old in the land and a much improving colt. Following the Affirmed, Stevens appeared to already have made up his mind.

"That's my ride," Stevens said of Point Given. "But (Until Sundown) deserves a shot."

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