Awesome Baby, the less-fancied of two Bob Baffert runners, led every step of the way in capturing the $196,000 Santa Ynez Stakes (gr. II) Jan. 4 at Santa Anita Park (VIDEO).
Just four contested the 6 1/2-furlong contest for 3-year-old fillies. Bettors were all over the Baffert-trained Crushed Velvet at 4-5, as well as Hollywood Starlet (gr. I) runner-up Taste Like Candy, the 6-5 second choice.
But it was Kaleem Shah's Awesome Baby, ridden off a three-month layoff by red-hot Mike Smith, who at odds of 5-1 had their measure for a half-length triumph while timed in 1:16.62. Taste Like Candy was second, with Crushed Velvet, favored off a romping 5 /4-length debut maiden win one month ago, 2 3/4 lengths farther back in third.
The winning daughter of Awesome Again was quick to the lead and dueled with Taste Like Candy, racing to her inside with Rafael Bejarano aboard, through swift quarter mile fractions of :21.76 and :44.45. Crushed Velvet, with Martin Garcia riding, stalked in third at the rail.
Inching away from her rivals coming into the stretch, Awesome Baby was in command by 2 1/2 lengths at the eighth pole before she began to drift inward. Taste Like Candy, who looked done for at mid-stretch, re-engaged in the final sixteenth of a mile, but Awesome Baby had enough in the tank to hold on gamely under some urging from Smith.
"She broke really well, was well in hand until I needed to ask her, and I just showed her the whip and she kept running," said Smith, the Hall of Fame rider who came into Saturday's races with eight wins from 20 mounts at Santa Anita. "It was a great race out of her today."
Making her fourth start, Awesome Baby rebounded impressively in her first race since Sept. 28, a poor effort in the Chandelier Stakes (gr. I)—her only try around two turns—when she was fifth while beaten by 23 lengths. She had been training sharply for her return over the Santa Anita main track, including a :59 3/5 move for five furlongs in her most recent drill Dec. 30.
Bred in Kentucky by Nicholas and Debbie Sibilio out of the winning Running Stag mare Miss Attractive, Awesome Baby was a $220,000 Keeneland September yearling buy in 2012.
She began her career with a sharp front-running maiden score by 4 3/4 lengths at Del Mar. Sent off the 11-10 favorite in her next start, the Del Mar Debutante (gr. I), she got caught in an inside duel and weakened to finish seventh of eight. In the Chandelier, she dueled on the lead once again for a half mile but tired.
"I was a little disappointed in her," said Baffert, who previously won the Santa Ynez with Yearly Report in 2004 and Indian Blessing in 2008. "I was getting a little bit discouraged with her because she just wasn't finishing. She'd been working well, but she was always working well before and she'd fall apart; but today, she got out there, and I could tell about the three-eighths pole this filly was running like she did her maiden race. Her maiden race at Del Mar was really impressive. That's why she was the favorite in the Debutante."
As for Crushed Velvet, the Hall of Fame conditioner said, "You have to realize she ran really fast first time out. I went easy on her and sometimes they just run like that second time out. But they were going pretty fast and she was like four or five lengths back and then she closed. She probably would have been better sitting back a little further, but she closed on a 21 and four, so she probably went in 21 and just got tired. I think she's a really good filly. Sometimes when they run that fast early it knocks them out a little bit, but she'll be fine."
"Awesome Baby will stay one turn," Baffert added. "I think the other filly (Crushed Velvet) is going to stretch out."
Awesome Baby's second win in four starts was worth $120,000, boosting her career total to $170,250.
She paid $12.60 and $4.40, combining with the Jerry Hollendorfer-trained Taste Like Candy ($22.80) for a $20.60 exacta. There was no show wagering. Uzziel trailed throughout.