It's the time of year when questions start to get answered on the Triple Crown trail.
The early season preps can underwhelm, as the cream of the crop has yet to square off, but a race like the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes (G2) March 10 at Santa Anita Park has the potential to be a blockbuster.
There's an undefeated horse, two more last-out graded stakes winners looking to prove themselves, and a returning divisional frontrunner from last season. The potentially potent mixture may be diluted by an expected storm in Southern California over the weekend, but if conditions end up closer to ideal, the first showdown of the trail could be afoot.
"This is when they start to separate themselves. We're all just trying to get there," said trainer Bob Baffert, who will look to win his third San Felipe in four years with Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman's McKinzie. "I know McKinzie is a good horse. I know Bolt d'Oro is a good horse. ... But we saw last weekend what can happen. Things don't always work out. You want to move forward. You don't want to be taking steps back.
"March madness—this is when it starts. You don't want your bubble busted too early."
Baffert's reference was to Good Magic, the champion 2-year-old of 2017 who just edged Bolt d'Oro in the voting for the honor. Sent off at odds of 3-5 in the March 3 Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2), the Curlin colt finished an even third, 4 1/2 lengths behind winner Promises Fulfilled.
While McKinzie is undefeated from three starts, including a 3 1/2-length victory last time out in the Jan. 6 Sham Stakes (G3) at Santa Anita, Ruis Racing's Bolt d'Oro is entering his 3-year-old debut off his only loss Nov. 4 in the Sentient Jet Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) at Del Mar, where he finished third behind Good Magic.
Owner and trainer Mick Ruis openly acknowledges how much the Eclipse Award voting rankled him—Bolt d'Oro had a pair of grade 1 wins on his record and had a severely wide trip in the Breeders' Cup, while Good Magic broke his maiden in the race—and is fiery in his defense of the Medaglia d'Oro colt, whose sophomore season was delayed because of some body soreness.
"He was that much better than (his competition as a 2-year-old), but I can't wait to watch him race this year," Ruis said. "I think we're about where we were heading into the (grade 1) Del Mar Futurity (a race Bolt d'Oro won by three-quarters of a length, which preceded his emphatic, 7 3/4-length score in the grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes). This is where I feel he is right now. Do I think he's good enough to win? I do. Does he have to win? No.
"We just want a good showing and to be firing on all cylinders going into the Santa Anita Derby (G1)."
Ruis allayed concerns about Bolt d'Oro's perceived knocks, including how the bay colt tends to break slowly from the gate. A slow break surely didn't help his wide trip in the Breeders' Cup, and he also got off to a slow start in his maiden-breaking win in August and in the Futurity.
But the critique built with his penultimate work for the San Felipe Feb. 26 at Santa Anita under jockey Javier Castellano. Just after the gates opened, Bolt d'Oro was two lengths behind his stablemate and workmate, and had to be asked by Castellano to get into position. Once into his stride in the backstretch, however, the colt settled and blew past his workmate in the stretch.
"He's not as bad out of the gate as everybody says he is. That was the only time I've worked him out of the gate, and (his workmate) Eskimo Roses is the fastest horse out of the gate I've got," Ruis said. "It looked bad, but in four strides he was where he needed to be. It was very deceiving, and I wanted him behind and have some dirt kicked in his face."
If the San Felipe plays out the way it looks on paper, Bolt d'Oro, who drew the rail in a field of eight, will get plenty of dirt kicked in his face, most likely from the horse just to his right, Michael Lombardi's last-out Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) winner Lombo.
Off at 8-1 in the 1 1/16-mile Lewis, after a 3 1/2-length maiden win sprinting two weeks prior, Lombo figures to be the pacesetter once again in the San Felipe, which is at the same distance. Trainer Mike Pender confirmed his tactics after the draw March 7.
"His 'go button' is always on. Like my former horse, Ultimate Eagle, there's no use trying to ration it," Pender said. "Take what the good Lord gives you—just hope he doesn't get a ticket for speeding in that opening quarter."
Lombo's presence, along with speedy maiden winners Aquila and Calexman, could result in a quick pace, which would help a closer like West Point Thoroughbreds' Kanthaka, who stormed home from the back to take the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (G2) last time out Feb. 10. Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer still has some unanswered questions regarding how the Jimmy Creed colt will handle two turns, but he has seen positive signs during his training.
"Once you get an answer, you've got more questions. That's true for any of these races," Hollendorfer said. "The question now is—he won a graded stakes at seven furlongs, now can he go a mile and a sixteenth? The way he won the San Vicente and the way he's been working on the racetrack, we think we have a chance."
The field is rounded out by Robert B. Lewis second choice Peace (who finished fifth in that race) and second-place Lewis finisher Ayacara. Off at 2-1 in the Lewis, Peace never looked like himself in his first start with blinkers and has been given another shot on the Triple Crown trail by trainer Richard Mandella. But those blinkers are long gone.
"To make a long story short, I burnt the blinkers," Mandella said. "He's not going to run with them. He's trained really well lately, and I'm going to go back to the idea that I still think he's a good horse. We won't know if we won't try. He just did some strange things with the blinkers on. I've never seen a horse react that way—he never picked his head off the ground.
"I do feel he didn't run his race the other day. Otherwise, I wouldn't be kidding myself."
The San Felipe may look like a heavyweight bout for now, but it could be hampered by wet conditions (forecasts show a 70% chance of rain in Arcadia, Calif.).
While Baffert said McKinzie would run in "rain, sleet, or snow," Ruis was adamant he would not run Bolt d'Oro on an off track.
"I'm scratching if it's sloppy," said Ruis, who indicated a backup plan would be to run Bolt d'Oro in the March 17 Rebel Stakes (G2) at Oaklawn Park. "If you have a horse this good, and you don't have to run on a sloppy track and have more options, wouldn't you run for $900,000 on a fast track?"
Regardless of the weather and who wins the San Felipe, Baffert and Ruis have grown fond of their competition. Both admit to keeping an eye on each other during morning training at Santa Anita, and have a healthy respect for each colt.
"When you know these horses, you'll see them out there, and I like to concentrate on my own horses. But you can't help but see them out there," Baffert said. "I just like watching good horses work."
"Bob could not have McKinzie more ready to fire his absolute best. I watch him out here every day," Ruis said.
Santa Anita Park, Saturday, March 10, 2018, Race 6
PP Horse Jockey Wgt Trainer M/L 1 1Bolt d'Oro (KY) Javier Castellano 124 Mick Ruis 2/1 2 2Lombo (KY) Rafael Bejarano 122 Michael Pender 8/1 3 3Ayacara (GB) Kent J. Desormeaux 120 J. Keith Desormeaux 8/1 4 4McKinzie (KY) Mike E. Smith 124 Bob Baffert 8/5 5 5Aquila (KY) Martin A. Pedroza 120 Simon Callaghan 15/1 6 6Calexman (KY) Alonso Quinonez 120 Vladimir Cerin 30/1 7 7Peace (KY) Drayden Van Dyke 120 Richard E. Mandella 15/1 8 8Kanthaka (KY) Flavien Prat 120 Jerry Hollendorfer 4/1
Santa Anita Park, Saturday, March 10, 2018, Race 6