Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert's decision to ship Hoppertunity across the country paid dividends Oct. 8.
Early pacesetter Protonico led into the stretch, where he was soon engaged by Effinex , with Hoppertunity then joining the fun outside those two a furlong from the wire. The trio battled for several strides, and Hoppertunity eventually emerged with his second grade I score.
Baffert, who scratched Karl Watson, Paul Weitman, and Mike Pegram's Hoppertunity from last weekend's 1 1/8-mile Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park, said the 5-year-old son of Any Given Saturday needs the 1 1/4-mile distance. Guided by John Velazquez, Hoppertunity completed that span in 2:00.68. Effinex finished second, followed by Protonico, and then Mubtaahij.
"There wasn't a whole lot of speed in the race other than Effinex. Everybody stayed sensible," said Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes. "The most important thing for 'Hopper' is that he was standing good and broke good and he was placed more forwardly in the race, especially on a slow pace, that's probably why he was a little closer. We always thought in our minds that he would like these big turns here, and this big, deep track where he would have a chance to come from behind.
"We didn't run at home. This race is a mile-and-a-quarter. You run in the Awesome Again, it's a mile-and-an-eighth. The horse wants distance; that was the main reason to come here."
Bred in Kentucky by Betz, D.J. Stable, Kidder J. Betz and Robenalt, Hoppertunity earned his most lucrative win to date as he closes in on $3 million in career earnings at $2,962,675. Hopperunity finished third to California Chrome earlier this year in the Dubai World Cup sponsored by Emirates Airline (UAE-I). In 2014 Hoppertunity won the Clark Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs. With the Jockey Club Gold Cup victory, he earned an automatic berth to the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I) as part of the Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" program.
Early in Saturday's race Sumaya U.S. Stable's Protonico led inside through a half-mile in :49.03. At six furlongs in 1:12.18 he was engaged by 6-5 favorite Effinex , the 2015 Clark winner who forged a head in front. Those two would continue heads apart through a mile in 1:35.98.
Hoppertunity saved ground and tracked from fourth early before being asked for his rally three fulongs from the wire. Racing widest of the three, he forged to the front a sixteenth from home and edge away.
"It was a good trip. They told me he can be a little lazy the first part of the race so I sent him out of there and made sure he was somewhere in the mix, not too far back," Velazquez said. "He was in the bridle, so he was very good and just cruising along at a good pace. I was just kind of reminding him to stay where I needed him to be and he did everything I wanted him to.
"I knew that he's always going around other horses and I wanted him to be inside, save all the ground I could and try to work my way out somewhere around the three-eighths pole, the quarter-pole, and it worked out that way. The only thing they told me is that he doesn't really run well around the turns. So, OK, I kept it in mind and hoped that I could keep him close enough when he gets around the turns without overdoing it and he did everything I asked him to do. When I pulled him out, he responded."
Protonico completed the race but was vanned off afterward.
Hoppertunity paid $9.60, $4, and $2.60 across the board and Effinex returned $3 and $2.20. Protonico paid $3.80 to show.
Trainer Jimmy Jerkens said Effinex battled and may have not spotted the winner's rally.
"I wonder if he really saw the other horse. I don't know if he really saw the horse until it was too late, because then he tried to fight back on," Jerkens said. "He wears that cup on the outside. It does have a little diamond in the back so they see a shadow at least, but he didn't act like he saw him until the horse was already past him.
"It's a shame. At the quarter pole, he looked like he couldn't lose. He was just galloping."
Dr. Russell Cohen, of Tri-Bone Stables—owner of Effinex, said the horse will go on to the Breeders' Cup Classic. He finished second in that race last year.
"At the end of the day, I'm honored just to be here and have a horse of his significance and impact in the game," Cohen said. "Being a small outfit with very humble circumstances, I'm really honored to have a really sound horse that shows the high levels of racing can be achieved."
Consigned by Betz Thoroughbreds to the 2012 Keeneland September yearling sale, Baffert went to $300,000 to land Hoppertunity for his current owners. Out of stakes-placed Unaccounted For mare Refugee, Hoppertunity is a half brother to two-time grade I-winning filly Executiveprivilege and stakes-placed filly Profit.