Bob Baffert is down to his last three strikes for the Kentucky Derby.
If any of his 3-year-olds race in the 128th Run for the Roses on May 4, they will be longshots.
His best prospects are either hors de combat or didn’t make the cut, so the white-haired trainer, who won the Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm and in 1998 with Real Quiet, is left with only Danthebluegrassman, Puerto Banus or Mountain Rage to fire up for the mile and one quarter classic at Churchill Downs.
Baffert knows none of the trio strikes fear in the hearts of other trainers with Triple Crown candidates. He makes no bones about ranking East Coast ace Repent and West Coast hero Siphonic as the clear-cut leaders among 3-year-old colts.
Still, he must play the hand he’s been dealt, which is why he plans to put Puerto Banus and Mountain Rage to the acid test in Sunday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
“I’m just seeing if they’ve got it,” Baffert said. “Puerto Banus is lightly raced and needs racing. He’s a nice horse, but the San Felipe is a tough spot for him. It’s time to fish or cut bait. Mountain Rage, we’re taking a chance to see if he might like the dirt.”
Puerto Banus, a $345,000 son of Supremo owned by The Thoroughbred Corp., broke his maiden at 15-1 in his debut, and has run only four times since. His best effort was a second behind USS Tinosa in the 11/8-mile Sham Stakes. Puerto Banus is a half-brother to $3 million earner Spain, upset winner of the 2000 Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
Mountain Rage’s best efforts have been on turf. The son of Mecke won the Grade III Generous at one mile on the grass at Hollywood Park, and won the Hill Rise at one mile on the turf at Santa Anita. But he was seventh after a slow start in the Hollywood Futurity on the main track, beaten 12Â½ lengths by Siphonic.
Baffert won the 11/16-mile San Felipe with Prime Timber in 1999 and with Point Given last year.
“The San Felipe, that’s when the serious horses start to show up,” Baffert said. “The 11/16 miles of the San Felipe lets you see how a horse can finish and what to expect at the next ÂÃ‚Âlevel.”
The “next level” is the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, a major stepping stone to the Kentucky Derby. It allows almost a month until the Run for the Roses, an ideal gap for most horsemen.
Some of Baffert’s Derby hopefuls didn’t pan out. China Grind was sidelined earlier with “growing pains,” according to Baffert. Strive has yet to live up to his hype, and is still a maiden. Hawk’s Top Gun, Officer, Popular, Relentless Seller, Requesto, Saturday Hero, Tough Game and True Monarch all fell behind schedule.
“If Puerto Banus and Mountain Rage do well in the San ÂÃ‚ÂFelipe, a lot of ”˜ifs’ are going to be answered,” Baffert said. “But Siphonic is the horse to beat. The way he broke (tardily) in the San Vicente, he was supposed to get beat (by ÂÃ‚ÂLabamta Babe, who was injured after the race and also is sidelined), but for some reason, everybody got down on him. Siphonic is still the ”˜A’ horse in the West.
“I’d trade any horse I’ve got for him right now,” Baffert said, “and even throw in a ÂÃ‚Âcouple more.”
THE HOMESTRETCH: Trainer David Hofmans says he has a commitment from Jerry Bailey to ride Siphonic in Sunday’s San Felipe Stakes, and again in the Santa Anita Derby, “then we’ll see what happens after that.” Bailey replaced Tony D’Amico aboard Repent in the Louisiana Derby and will wait as long as he can to take his best shot for the Kentucky Derby. Meanwhile, Chris McCarron worked Siphonic recently and appears in line to take the mount on Siphonic should it work out that way. McCarron is the regular rider of Came Home, and both Came Home and Siphonic have the Santa Anita Derby on their agenda . . . Bob Hess Jr. says Bay Area jockey Jose Arriaga will ride Azillion “on a one-shot deal” in the Spiral Stakes, filling in for Kent Desormeaux, who rides Astra in the Santa Ana Handicap the same day, March 23 . . . Darrell Vienna is considering the $700,000 ÂÃ‚ÂExplosive Bid Handicap at 11/8 miles on turf at the Fair Grounds for the U.S. debut of Suances, a Spanish import ÂÃ‚ÂVienna says could be “a horse of very high quality.” Suances could face the Bobby Frankel-trained monster, Beat Hollow, in the Explosive Bid. Suances recently worked six furlongs on Santa Anita’s firm turf course in a bullet 1:14, while Beat Hollow worked the same distance on Hollywood Park’s fast main track in 1:14.40 . . . Eoin Harty, who developed the champion filly Tempera, has another bumper crop of juvenile bluebloods for Godolphin and expects to get them to the races in three months. “I haven’t done a lot with them yet, so it’s hard to tell how good they are right now,” said the former Baffert assistant. “It’s still very early. I’ve got an A.P. Indy, a General Meeting, a Southern Halo, the whole spectrum. They’ll be coming in the first week of April and hopefully they’ll be ready to go in June.”