Trainer Bob Baffert brings out his big gun, 2009 juvenile champion Lookin At Lucky , in the $300,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II) at Oaklawn Park March 13. Now he just wants to be sure the son of Smart Strike is ready to fire.
"There’s no rush," said Baffert during a recent national teleconference. "There’s not a gun to my head. He’s already automatically in the Derby with his earnings. I just want to make sure I get him right and have him right for the big dance."
By which, of course, he is referring to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) May 1 at Churchill Downs. To that end, he shipped Lookin At Lucky out of Southern California to Hot Springs, Ark., for his first race since winning the CashCall Futurity (gr. I) at Hollywood Park Dec. 19. Lookin At Lucky will get his first start on dirt in the Rebel and also dons blinkers for the first time.
"Well I think we’re going to find out a lot about him," Baffert said.
Just seven were entered in the 1 1/16-mile Rebel, but the field is salty for an early-season prep, one that includes two other grade I winners in Noble's Promise and Dublin .
Noble's Promise, winner of Keeneland's Dixiana Breeders' Futurity (gr. I) last fall, finished just behind Lookin At Lucky in both the Grey Goose Breeders Cup Juvenile (gr. I) and the CashCall Futurity. Like the top choice, the colt will be making his first start since then.
Dublin won the Hopeful (gr. I) at Saratoga in September and is coming off a game second to another Baffert trainee, Conveyance , in the Southwest Stakes (gr. III) at Oaklawn Feb. 20.
Baffert's been unbeatable at Oaklawn, scoring with both of the horses he has sent for stakes events, Conveyance in the Southwest and Freedom Star in the Azeri (gr. III). He said the idea to try blinkers—Lookin At Lucky will wear a small cup for the first time—came from jockey Garrett Gomez.
"He thought (Lookin At Lucky would) be a little bit more focused...because when he makes the lead he sort of shuts it down," Baffert said. "And (Gomez) says he doesn't respond (to) the whip at all. He just keeps on the same.
"So he thought maybe with blinkers he wouldn't pull up. And so far he’s been working with blinkers and he’s been working very well with it."
All that kept Lookin At Lucky from a perfect record in his six starts as a 2-year-old was a second-place finish by a head to Vale of York in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a race in which he drew an outside post and was bumped late before putting in a strong rally. His stakes wins last year also included the Best Pal (gr. II), the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I) and the Norfolk (gr. I). Out of the Belong to Me mare Private Feeling, the Kentucky bred has earned $1,243,000 for owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman.
"He’s pretty ready," Baffert said. "I mean I wouldn't send him up there unless I felt good about it. He’s a franchise horse. I got to make sure he’s ready.
"I don't have him ready to win the Kentucky Derby yet or something. But he’s ready enough to run well. I want to get a nice, tough race out of him. We want to win."
Baffert expects Lookin At Lucky to be a little fresh and close to the pace, which could be lively. The bay colt drew post 2 and will tote top weight (along with Noble's Promise) of 119 pounds.
Noble's Promise, to be ridden by Robby Albarado for the first time, figures to be forwardly placed as well. He, too, will be making his first start on dirt for trainer Ken McPeek, a former Oaklawn regular who conditions the bay colt for Chasing Dreams Racing 2008.
Following a third-place finish in the BC Juvenile, the son of Cuvee—The Devil's Trick, by Clever Trick, made a big run at Lookin At Lucky in the CashCall Futurity only to come up three-quarters of a length short. Noble's Promise won three of six starts in 2009 and was never out of the money while earning $733,500. He leaves from post 6 in the Rebel.
Dublin, a son of Afleet Alex —Classy Mirage, by Storm Bird, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, has a recency edge on his top rivals. He was flying late in the one-mile Southwest and came up three-quarters of a length short of catching the pacemaking Conveyance. The added distance in the Rebel and the presence of more early speed should work to the advantage of his closing style.
Corey Nakatani is aboard for the first time on Dublin, who has won two of six starts and banked $228,623. Dublin breaks from the far outside.
His Southwest effort came following surgery to free an entrapped epiglottis and gives Lukas plenty of confidence that the colt is pointing to Triple Crown success. Stabled at Oaklawn, Dublin continues to train brilliantly.
Uh Oh Bango showed some early foot while losing a two-horse duel to highly-regarded Rule in the rich Delta Downs Jackpot (gr. III) Dec. 4, the most recent start for the Arizona-bred son of Top Hit. The stakes-winning Triple AAA Ranch homebred won two of five starts in 2009 and was never worse than second while earning $227,652 under trainer Kory Owens.
Improving Cardiff Giant ran third in the Southwest in his first start outside of Southern California at odds of 25-1, beaten by 2 1/4 lengths. Trained by Jorge Periban for owner Mike Gonzales, the gelded son of Yankee Gentleman was second to Conveyance in the San Rafael Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita prior to the Southwest. He will be making his 12th start in the Rebel, having compiled a 2-5-3 mark and earnings of $101,998.
Also coming out of the Southwest is Vickie Fixley's late-closing Pleasant Storm, who finished seventh while never getting involved. Trained by Joseph Patalino, the Oklahoma-bred Pleasant Tap colt ran second Jan. 18 in Oaklawn's Smarty Jones.
Louisiana shipper Royal Express will ensure a fast pace. In his first try at a mile in a stakes at Delta Downs Feb. 26, the Royal Academy colt led by three lengths in the stretch before being caught late.
Trained by Joseph Broussard for Illinois breeder/owner Richard F. Rudolph, Royal Express won the 5 1/2-furlong Black Gold Stakes at Fair Grounds by 3 1/2 lengths in front-running fashion Feb. 6.
$300,000 Rebel Stakes (gr. II, Race 10, 5:47 p.m.), 3-Year-Olds, 1 1/16 Miles
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Cardiff Giant (KY), C Santiago Reyes, 115, J Periban
2. Lookin At Lucky (KY), G K Gomez, 119, B Baffert
3. Royal Express (IL), P Compton, 117, J E Broussard
4. Uh Oh Bango (AZ), G W Corbett, 117, R K Owens
5. Pleasant Storm (OK), J K Court, 117, J Petalino
6. Noble's Promise (KY), R Albarado, 119, K G McPeek
7. Dublin (KY), C S Nakatani, 117, D W Lukas
Blinkers On: Lookin At Lucky