Liaison, at this early juncture trainer Bob Baffert's most accomplished contender for the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and beyond, faces seven opponents in the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II) Feb. 4.
Owned by Arnold Zetcher, Liaison won the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) in his most recent start over Hollywood Park's Cushion Track Dec. 17. In the Lewis, contested at 1 1/16 miles on Santa Anita's main track, Liaison is in for a rematch with the irrepressible Rousing Sermon, who closed furiously from 10th at mid-stretch in the CashCall to just miss.
Those two, along with a second Baffert entrant, Sky Kingdom, figure to get most of the attention in this year's Lewis, which is the sixth race on a Santa Anita program that includes two other grade II events. They are the Arcadia (race 3) at one mile on the turf featuring Mr. Commons as the heavy favorite, and the Strub Stakes (race 8), at 1 1/8 miles for 4-year-olds with emerging star Tapizar the horse to beat.
Post time for the Lewis Stakes is 3:05 p.m. PST. The race, contested at 1 1/8 miles last year, was won by Anthony's Cross.
Liaison, a son of 1998 Santa Anita Derby winner Indian Charlie, has won his past three starts in succession since debuting with a third-place finish at Del Mar last September. He defeated Rousing Sermon by a half-length in the Real Quiet Stakes at Hollywood prior to the CashCall, both at the Lewis distance. The bay colt also owns a victory over the Santa Anita main track, graduating against maidens by 2 3/4 lengths while going seven furlongs last October.
“He just keeps moving forward,” said Baffert, who has won nine Triple Crown events and six of the last 16 renewals of the Santa Anita Derby.
Baffert is a three-time winner of the Lewis, which was named for the late California owner for whom he trained in 2007. Baffert's most recent triumph came in 2009 with Pioneerof the Nile .
Liaison, who worked a half-mile in :48 in his final tuneup for the Lewis Jan. 31, earned $469,560 as a 2-year-old. He will be ridden from post 2 by Rafael Bejarano, who has been aboard the $290,000 Keeneland September yearling in all of his races. They will carry top weight of 123 pounds, five more than each of his rivals.
The deserving favorite was fully extended last time to get the better of Rousing Sermon, who flew home while rallying six wide into the lane. The California-bred son of Lucky Pulpit races as a homebred for Mr. and Mrs. Larry D. Williams, and is trained by Jerry Hollendorfer.
Rousing Sermon, like Liaison, won his only previous start on dirt in Santa Anita’s $100,000 California Cup Juvenile Stakes Oct. 29. The Cal Cup Juvenile was also Rousing Sermon's first try around two turns. The chestnut colt has a 2-2-2 record in six starts and earnings of $274,000. Joe Talamo retains the mount and they will break from post 6.
“We’re all ready to go,” Hollendorfer said following a recent drill at Santa Anita.
Baffert stablemate Sky Kingdom ran fourth in the CashCall Futurity and was gaining much ground on the winner as well while beaten by 2 1/4 lengths. Sky Kingdom, a son of Empire Maker owned by Westrock Stables, returned to blitz a first-level Santa Anita allowance field by 4 1/2 lengths going 1 1/16 miles Jan. 12 as the 3-5 favorite.
“I hate to run them against each other,” said Baffert in reference to Liaison and Sky Kingdom, but added that his options were few. Martin Garcia will ride Sky Kingdom, who drilled a bullet five furlongs in :58 2/5 Jan. 27.
Empire Way, who was edged for fourth in the CashCall Futurity, returns for trainer Mike Harrington and owner Heinz Steinmann. Another son of Empire Maker out of the A.P. Indy mare Delta Princess, Empire Way won his debut at Hollywood last November after selling for $250,000 nearly one year ago at Fasig-Tipton's Florida sale.
Reddam Racing's I'll Have Another , runner-up in the Best Pal Stakes (gr. II) for Doug O'Neill at Del Mar, makes his first appearance since running sixth in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) on a sloppy Saratoga track Sept. 5.
$200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (gr. II, Race 6, 3:05 p.m.), 3YOs, 1 1/16 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Isn't He Clever (KY), C S Nakatani, 118, H Dominguez
2. Liaison (KY), R Bejarano, 123, B Baffert
3. Groovin' Solo (KY), V Espinoza, 118, M K Cho
4. I'll Have Another (KY), M Gutierrez, 118, D F O'Neill
5. Sky Kingdom (KY), M Garcia, 118, B Baffert
6. Rousing Sermon (CA), J Talamo, 118, J Hollendorfer
7. Empire Way (KY), J Rosario, 118, M Harrington
8. Chips All In (KY), A Quinonez, 118, J Mullins
Blinkers On: Groovin' Solo