Making his first start since winning last fall's Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, El Corredor makes an impression in the Pat O'Brien.

Making his first start since winning last fall's Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, El Corredor makes an impression in the Pat O'Brien.

Benoit & Associates

Del Mar Racing Report: Comeback King

Published in the Aug. 18 issue of The Blood-Horse
It took just over 80 seconds for El Corredor to show us again why he's one of the most exciting racehorses on the planet. As if anyone needed a reminder.

"Sometimes when they're away so long," confessed his trainer, Bob Baffert, "you forget how good they are."

In truth, cosmic alignment is necessary for the dark dynamo to leave the protective comfort of Baffert's stable. When he does, though, sparks fly. But even the great ones have vulnerabilities, and for the past eight months, the standout son of Mr. Greeley has been victim to his fragile feet. To his credit, only the quarter cracks may be able to stop him now.

Equipped with enough glue to seal a vault -- "He's packin' about an extra two pounds of patches," said Baffert, chuckling -- El Corredor blasted back into the picture on Aug. 12 in the $150,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap (gr. II) at seven furlongs. And the feet seemed more secure than Baffert, who figured the colt might not have his edge after eight months on the shelf.

Uh huh. Right. But at least a soft sprint down the backstretch definitely helped. Reunited with jockey Victor Espinoza for the first time since last summer, El Corredor had a smooth trip early, cruising alongside Blade Prospector to the quarter-pole. There, he took over, then had to deal with the pursuit of Swept Overboard.

Last seen in the same frame as Kona Gold and Caller One, the End Sweep colt had been eager from the start, with jockey Corey Nakatani keeping an eye on El Corredor throughout. Naka-tani cut Swept Overboard loose leaving the turn, but El Corredor was able to keep him at arm's length through the stretch. The final margin was 1 1/2 lengths. Ceeband was another length back in third.

After six furlongs in 1:08.39, El Corredor was under the wire in a swift 1:20.42, a clocking which stacks up well with the 1:20 flat fashioned in 1995 by Lit de Justice. That one became a champion. It's possible El Corredor may be on the same road to sainthood himself.

"I think he's a horse like Kona Gold," Baffert said, summoning the king himself. "He's got class and determination to win."

He's also got an incredible engine and natural versatility, making him lethal from six furlongs to a mile and -- feet permitting -- beyond. All of this puts El Corredor in the thick of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The only dilemma is which spot would be ideal.

"If there was a mile race, it'd be great," Baffert admitted. There is, only it's on grass. Baffert toyed with putting El Corredor on the turf for his comeback, even testing him over the Del Mar layout in mid-July. The result, however, left a modicum of uncertainty, prompting the trainer to keep El Corredor in his present orbit.

"He worked good, but I think he just worked good because he's such a good horse," he said. "But I don't know if he really loved it."

This, then, leaves the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) as the logical target. And with the dark bay's ability to perform following a layoff, there's a strong chance Baffert may put El Corredor back on the blocks till the big day rolls around. It certainly wouldn't be a problem for owner Hal Earnhardt.

"It's worth the wait with him," Earnhardt said. "This horse is just awesome."

Nakatani came up short with Swept Overboard, but he crafted a cool ride aboard Juddmonte Farms' Marine in the $150,000 La Jolla Handicap (gr. IIIT) the day before.

Hanging back early, Nakatani surgically wove his way forward atop Marine, then stayed icy calm when Marine got stopped in midstretch. Instantly, they burst through and nailed Romanceishope by a neck, covering the 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.72. Mister Approval came on to take third.

The La Jolla tossed Marine, a 3-year-old son of Marju, into the heart of the Sept. 3 Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT), though things figure to get much tougher when he meets a few good standouts like Blue Steller, Euribor, and Oceanside Stakes winners Sigfreto and Dr. Park.