Secret Circle, a two-time graded stakes winner at Oaklawn Park as a 3-year-old in 2012, returns to the Hot Springs, Ark., track April 10 as the one to beat in the $300,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (gr. III).
The six-furlong Count Fleet is the first graded stakes of the Racing Festival of the South's closing weekend. It will be followed by the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) April 11 and the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) and Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II) on the final card of the meet April 12.
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, always a presence when the money is on the line at Oaklawn, sends the ultra-consistent Secret Circle back to Oaklawn for the first time since he finished second in the 2012 Arkansas Derby. Secret Circle won both the Southwest (gr. III) and Rebel (gr. II) stakes that season prior to the Arkansas Derby. But since then, the 5-year-old son of Eddington has been concentrating on sprint distances.
Winner of the Xpressbet Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) at Santa Anita Park last fall, Secret Circle was a finalist for an Eclipse Award as last year's outstanding sprinter for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman. He has had one start this season, finishing second by a neck to Wild Dude as the 1-2 choice in the Palos Verdes Handicap (gr. II) Feb. 2.
Secret Circle missed about three weeks of training before returning to the work tab March 20 with a bullet four-furlong move of :46 flat. He followed that sterling drill with a six-furlong work in 1:11 1/5 from the gate March 29, and most recently posted a half mile in :47 flat April 4.
A field of six is set for the Count Fleet, which is the ninth race on the Thursday program with a 5:10 p.m. CDT scheduled post. Secret Circle, who drew the rail as the 123-pound highweight, is to have regular rider Martin Garcia aboard.
Baffert's only prior Count Fleet win came with High Stakes Player for Pegram in 1997. Secret Circle comes into the race with seven wins and three seconds in 10 lifetime starts with earnings of $1,918,790.
Secret Circle, who prefers to stalk from slightly off the pace, will have Louisiana-bred speedster Heitai as a target.
Rowell Enterprises' homebred ships in from his home state on a four-race stakes win streak for trainer Karl Broberg. The 4-year-old Fusaichi Pegasus gelding won each of those races handily, the most recent by five lengths over open company in the listed Duncan F. Kenner Stakes at Fair Grounds Race Course & Slots March 8.
Heitai, a seven-time winner from 17 races with earnings of $394,943, will have his usual pilot Diego Saenz aboard from gate 3 while toting 120 pounds.
Oaklawn specialist Apprehender, pulled up early in last year's Count Fleet and sidelined 10 months afterward, makes his third start off the layoff. From the Chris Richard's barn for John and Chris Robson's Dream Farm, the 5-year-old Posse gelding comes off a third in the listed Hot Springs Stakes March 8 following a repeat victory in the King Cotton three weeks earlier.
David Mello is back aboard the multiple stakes winner Apprehender, who has captured four of nine starts over the Oaklawn main track.
Black Hawk Stable's Alsvid was second last time in the Hot Springs and second as well in the King Cotton for trainer Chris Hartman. A nine-time winner from 21 lifetime starts with earnings of $573,215, the 5-year-old Officer gelding counts six stakes among his victories as he attempts to break through at the graded level for the first time. Ken Tohill retains the mount.
Picko's Pride was second in last year's Count Fleet, unable to stave off the rallying Justin Phillip after leading most of the way at odds of 24-1. But the McLean Robertson trainee was off the board in both the King Cotton and Hot Springs.
Lemon Drop Dream, shipping in from Louisiana for trainer Steve Asmussen off a third in the Duncan Kenner in his initial stakes try, completes the field.
$300,000 Count Fleet Sprint Handicap (gr. III, Race 9, 5:10 p.m.), 3 & Up, 6 Furlongs
PP. Horse, Jockey, Weight, Trainer
1. Secret Circle (KY), M Garcia, 123, B Baffert
2. Apprehender (KY), D Mello, 117, C Richard
3. Heitai (LA), D Saenz, 120, K Broberg
4. Alsvid (KY), K S Tohill, 116, C A Hartman
5. Lemon Drop Dream (KY), R Santana Jr., 113, S M Asmussen
6. Picko's Pride (KY), R A Vazquez, 114, M Robertson