Friday, March 17, 2017
When Bob Baffert sends his top-caliber horses to compete in Oaklawn’s stakes program, he contracts with top-notch local help to get them ready for race day. Exercise rider Jody Piper has been aboard all of the Hall of Fame trainer’s horses- except one. That one just happens to be none other than American Pharoah.
“I’ve been galloping for 40 years and got on all of them from Baffert, all of those Rebel and Arkansas Derby winners, but I missed the Triple Crown winner,” said Piper, who has also spent the afternoons working as a valet in the jockeys’ room for 35 years. “That would be a gallop boy’s lifetime dream, to get on a horse that wins the Triple Crown. How often does that happen?
Not very. American Pharaoh, winner of the 2015 Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby winner, was the first Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes winner in 37 years and went on to capture the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Horse of the Year honors.
With Piper having a “regular” job that year with the local manufacturer of the Baggo and Cornhole games, Oaklawn-based trainer Mike Johnson got the assignment to gallop American Pharoah before the Rebel and Arkansas Derby.
“Timing is everything and you have to be lucky. Mike was the lucky person who got on him,” Piper said.
Piper was eventually laid off from his job off the racetrack and once he came back to Oaklawn, one of the first calls he made was to Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s longtime assistant who has been bringing the barn’s horses here for at least 15 years by his account.
“I said I’d love to come back and he said I’d love to have you on our horses,” he said Friday morning after taking American Anthem and stablemate and Essex Handicap morning favorite Mor Spirit for their last etrips around the oval before their races.
Piper had only high praise for American Anthem, the 2-1 morning line favorite for the Rebel. The colt is a son of 2012 Arkansas Derby winner Bodemeister, who had a well-earned reputation as a handful.
“I galloped his daddy, Bodemeister, and he won the Arkansas Derby by 10 [9 1/2] lengths,” Piper said. This horse feels really good. He goes over the track beautiful, just beautiful. He’s got nice motion, nice action, and a big stride. He’s effortless going over the track. He’s very intelligent, too. The first day we got up there it was a little early and there was a crowd, a lot of action, a lot of noise and a lot of horses working. There were horses coming on both sides of him, and he just went about his way. Nothing has phased him. From the way he acted out there, I couldn’t believe this horse has only run twice,” said Piper.
Hall of Famer Mike Smith handles the afternoon assignment on American Anthem on Saturday. But he and Piper won’t need to be introduced.
“Mike was my first jockey when I started as a valet way back,” said Piper, who will assist Smith, Gary Stevens and Victor Espinoza when they are here to ride on Saturday as well as his regular Oaklawn jockeys Luis Contreras, Joe Rocco, Jr. and Ramon Vazquez. “I was his best man when he got married.”
After two wins at Gulfstream Park by a combined 22 lengths, Malagacy was pinned with the rising star tag in Todd Pletcher’s barn full of Triple Crown hopefuls. Entering the Rebel Stakes, not even the chestnut colt’s seven-time Eclipse Award-winning trainer knows how good he may be.
“He’s been a pleasant surprise and he has certainly run impressively,” Pletcher said from his South Florida base. “We’re optimistic and I guess we’ll know for sure pretty quickly.”
Malagacy, who comes in to the Rebel as the 4-1 second choice on the early line and will break from Post 6 under multiple Eclipse Award-winning rider Javier Castellano. He has yet to race beyond 6 1/2 furlongs, but he is a son of 2011 Preakness Stakes winner Shackleford out of a Dehere mare so his pedigree top and bottom suggests he’ll handle the 1 1/16 mile distance of the Rebel. He fired a bullet 5 furlong work of 1:01 at Palm Beach Downs March 11 before getting on a plane from Florida.
“His works have been quite good when going with horses, who are proven around two turns,” Pletcher said. “He has a good disposition so I think he’s rateable and that gives us the optimism that he’ll stretch out. He’s a very kind horse and he’s easy to ride. We’ve set him behind horses in the mornings and that doesn’t seem to bother him. Obviously, he has natural early speed, but I don’t think he’s headstrong. I think he’ll allow Javier to ride him accordingly.”
With an 11-horse field and plenty of speed in the race, it’s a given that the pace will be quite lively in the early going.
“We’re going to let him run his race and not worry about what anybody else does,” Pletcher added, while noting that Malagacy was assigned seven pounds less to shoulder than 122 lb. co-highweights Royal Mo and Uncontested. “We’ll let him get into a comfortable rhythm wherever that is. But I don’t envision him being too far off the pace. He’s stretching out for the first time and he’s got plenty of speed, so we’ll see how the race unfolds and let Javier (Castellano) figure it out into the first turn.”
Although Malagacy has yet to earn any Kentucky Derby qualifying points and there are 50-20-10-5 (1st through 4th place finish) available, Pletcher wasn’t looking down the road to Louisville.
“We’ll take it one step at a time and one race at a time,” he said.
Malagacy, who was purchased at auction for $190,000 by Sumaya US Stables as a 2-year-old, is believed to be named for the Malagasy ethnic people who comprise almost the entire population of the island nation of Madagascar and the language they speak, despite the different spelling of the word.
Petrov galloped 1 7/8 miles just after the track opened Friday morning for co-owner/trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs in preparation for the $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) for 3-year-olds Saturday at Oaklawn.
Petrov has finished second in his last two starts – both under New York-based Jose Ortiz – the $150,000 Smarty Jones Jan. 16 and $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 20. He was in chase mode in both starts this year, but Moquett said he hopes for different tactics Saturday.
“I just want a nice smooth trip,” Moquett said Friday morning. “Jose’s good at getting us in position, so I want us in position to get the most out of him. We’re going to place ourselves in position to win the race.”
Moquett said he and co-owner Catherine Adams Hutt, previously 50-50 partners, now own 75 percent of Petrov after recently selling a 25- percent stake in the Flatter colt to Sol Kumin.
Royal Mo galloped a mile before the renovation break Friday morning in preparation for the Rebel, which will mark his first start outside California.
“Before the rain,” trainer John Shirreffs said, alluding to sprinkles falling outside the Davona Dale barn. “I should say today, before the parade.”
The First Ever 14th annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade was to be held later Friday in Hot Springs.
“There’s a lot going on,” Shirreffs said. “You used to have, what, the gangsters here? Now, you’ve got the Irish.”
The Southern California-based Shirreffs will be looking for some luck with Royal Mo, the first 3-year-old the trainer will start at Oaklawn. The son of champion Uncle Mo, finished second in his first two career starts sprinting before stretching out to break his maiden at a mile and winning the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) at 1 1/16 miles in his last start, Feb. 4 at Santa Anita.
Shirreffs said he believed Royal Mo would be more effective at longer distances.
“He’s a big horse,” Shirreffs said. “Still growing and developing.”
Shirreffs has started seven horses at Oaklawn, including six in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares (the trainer won the race in 2008 and 2010 with superstar Zenyatta).
Shirreffs’ only other starter, Tiago, won the $500,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) in 2008.
Zenyatta and Tiago were campaigned by Jerry and Ann Moss, who also own Royal Mo.
Lightly raced Silver Dust is doing well in advance of the Rebel, trainer Randy Morse said Friday morning. The colt is coming off a fourth-place finish in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 20.
The Southwest was the first start around two turns for Silver Dust, who was also making his stakes and 3-year-old debut. It was his third career start.
Asked if he believed a possible faster pace Saturday would help Silver Dust’s chances, Morse said, “We’ll see.”
Morse trains Silver Dust, a gray son of Tapit, for prominent Texas automobile dealer Tom Durant, who purchased Silver Dust for $510,000 last year.
Uncontested will wear a tongue tie and a different type of bit in Saturday’s $900,000 Rebel Stakes (G2), trainer Wayne Catalano said Friday morning. He said the colt has been training in the new equipment after it is believed he suffered a breathing problem when he faded to sixth as the favorite in the $500,000 Southwest Stakes (G3) Feb. 20.
“We’re thinking he displaced,” Catalano said. “I think what we’ve corrected proved us right.”
Catalano was referring to a blistering 5-furlong work March 10 when Uncontested covered the distance over a fast track in :58.80 under regular rider Channing Hill and galloped out 6 furlongs in 1:10.60 and 7 furlongs in 1:24.80. He also recorded another 5-furlong bullet work (1:00) March 2.
The son of Tiz Wonderful, who races for Harry Rosenblum and Robert LaPenta, was a record-setting 5 1/4-length wire-to-wire winner of the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes Jan. 16 in his 3-year-old debut.
“He’s doing much better than he was,” Hill said following the March 10 breeze. “I told Harry these last two breezes were his best two breezes back to back. Now we’ve just got to translate that into the race.”