Super Ninety Nine rolled to an 11 1/4-length win in the $300,000 Southwest Stakes (gr. III) (VIDEO) Feb. 18 for Susan and Charles Chu's Tanma Corporation, muddling the 3-year-old picture even more as the top three finishers from the Smarty Jones Stakes finished off the board at Oaklawn Park.
Conditioners of sophomores formerly in high regard at Oaklawn will likely blame track conditions for their sound defeat; the Arkansas oval dodged showers for much of the day, but the skies opened up 30 minutes before the featured race and the surface was rated sloppy.
That defeat, however, came at the hands of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who dominates Oaklawn whenever he ships in to unleash his top California talent. Last year Baffert won two divisions of the Southwest with Castaway and Secret Circle , returned to take the Rebel Stakes (gr. II) with Secret Circle, and won the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) with Bodemeister .
Two turns and the slop proved no issue for pretty much only Super Ninety Nine, the even-money favorite who went wire-to-wire and drew off straight as an arrow under Rafael Bejarano to finish 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.84 while nine contenders crawled home in his wake. Smarty Jones Stakes winner Will Take Charge finished sixth, while the runner-up from that Jan. 21 prep, Texas Bling, was ninth.
"Rafael called me before the race," Baffert said. "I just told him to let him get away from there and do his thing."
Bejarano hustled his mount away from the gate and secured a rail spot in the opening strides, then perched quietly aboard as the Pulpit colt got the first quarter-mile in :23.33. He let Super Ninety Nine out a notch when pressured by Heaven's Runway just before the half-mile in :47.49, and the runner easily responded to maintain his 1 1/2-length lead.
Big Lute chased the top two and made a bid after three-quarters in 1:12.29, but was never a threat as Super Ninety Nine cruised off the second turn and into the stretch to open an eight-length lead.
"With the way he broke and speed we had, everything went well," Bejarano said. "There at the end, my horse still had something left."
From the top of the lane to the finish line it was all Super Ninety Nine, as Bejarano wrapped up late with the stragglers in his wake. Fear the Kitten made a five-wide rally but was no match for second, while Heaven's Runway fought back 2 1/4 lengths behind him for third.
"Turning for home, I could see he had plenty of horse," Baffert said. "It's exciting. This is the time of year when these 3-year-olds start getting exciting."
Rosie Napravnik, aboard Fear the Kitten for trainer Mike Maker, was pleased with the effort of the second-place finisher.
"I was little concerned going into the first turn because he didn't seem to be handling the track," she said. "But he settled in real nice and I just kept after him. He really started to rally at the three-eighths pole. I'm elated with his race."
Super Ninety Nine paid $4, $3.80 and $3, while Fear The Kitten returned $11.60 and $6.60 with Heaven's Runway bringing $11.60 to show. Channel Isle, Always In a Tiz, Will Take Charge, Big Lute, Brown Almighty, Texas Bling, and Officer Alex completed the order of finish.
Trainer Dominick Schettino had this to say of second choice Always in a Tiz: "The jock said he just wasn't handling it at all. We had a great trip, sitting right there on the outside, but then when Paco (Lopez) asked him on the turn, he started switching his leads back and forth and not getting anywhere. Back to the drawing board. Hopefully we get a break here soon."
Racing pundits will recall Super Ninety Nine from the days leading up to the 2012 Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita Park; highly-regarded, he was scratched from the Nov. 2 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint after injuring himself in the stall the night before the race.
Later that month the colt ran second to Really Mr. Greeley in the Hollywood Prevue Stakes (gr. II) at Betfair Hollywood Park; he came into the Southwest off a 3 1/4-length allowance win going a mile at Santa Anita over stablemate Code West Jan. 31.
Super Ninety Nine was bred in Kentucky by Northwest Farms out of the Unbridled's Song mare Exogenetic. Becky Thomas pinhooked him for $200,000 at the 2011 Keeneland September yearling sale when he was consigned by Three Chimneys Sales, agent.
He was purchased for $260,000 from the 2012 Ocala Breeders' Sales Co. June 2-year-olds and horses of racing age sale by Susan Chu when consigned by Thomas' Sequel Bloodstock.
Oaklawn's series of prep races on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) continues with the $600,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) March 16 and culminates in the $1 million Arkansas Derby (gr. I) April 13.
The Southwest Stakes victory earned Super Ninety Nine 10 points on the Kentucky Derby trail. Whether he'll continue along that trail in Arkansas remains to be seen.
"We know he likes the track now," Baffert said. "We'll get him back home and see how he does. I don't like to plan ahead and with these young horses, you just never know, (but) we'll definitely have something for the Rebel."