Jockey Martin Garcia had a memorable Sunday at Oaklawn, and it included more than picking up two live mounts in upcoming major stakes races for Southern California-based trainer Bob Baffert.
Garcia said he was struck in his right shoulder by a small bird approaching the finish line of the eighth race aboard Tipsy Gal. While Tipsy Gal finished second in the maiden special weights sprint for females, Garcia said the event near the wire was a first for him during a highly successful riding career that began in the United States in 2005.
“Good thing that I saw it coming and I moved my face to the left,” Garcia, 35, said during training hours Monday morning. “It would have broken my nose. It wasn’t a big bird. That’s never happened to me before. I think it’s good luck.”
Garcia’s good work this year at Oaklawn, and in the past for Baffert, helped the jockey land two prized mounts for the Hall of Fame trainer Saturday, the final day of the scheduled 57-day meeting. Garcia, Oaklawn’s second-leading rider through Sunday, is scheduled to ride Improbable for the first time in the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap (G2) for older horses and unbeaten Charlatan for the first time in the first division of the $500,000 Arkansas Derby (G1), a major Kentucky Derby prep.
Garcia was once Baffert’s go-to rider in the morning and afternoon. They teamed for 371 victories, including 103 stakes between 2010 and 2015, collecting such marquee events as the Preakness, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Breeders’ Cup Sprint, Kentucky Oaks, Santa Anita Handicap, Santa Anita Derby, Hollywood Gold Cup, Haskell Invitational, Clark Handicap and Malibu.
Garcia also rode American Pharoah, Baffert's 2015 Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year, in his first career start and regularly breezed the colt during his Triple Crown year.
Baffert and Garcia had a reported “falling out” in the spring of 2016, but have reunited at Oaklawn through a Covid-19 twist. Garcia is riding regularly for the first time at Oaklawn after relocating from Southern California to the Midwest last fall. Baffert began sending select horses to Hot Springs after Santa Anita suspended racing March 27 because of the new virus.
Garcia has been regularly breezing Baffert’s new arrivals, including Improbable, and they’ve turned back in the clock in the afternoon, too, going 5 for 6 together through Sunday.
“Martin’s been helping me out there,” Baffert said Tuesday afternoon. “Martin, he knows my horses. He’s been on every good horse I’ve ever had. He can handle pressure pretty well, too. I’m glad that he’s doing really, really well.”
Garcia said he was informed Sunday by his agent, Jay Fedor, that he would be riding Improbable and Charlatan. Southern California-based Drayden Van Dyke rode Improbable to a runner-up finish in the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile April 11 and was aboard Charlatan for his two blowout victories earlier this year at Santa Anita.
Garcia said he’s grateful to have an opportunity to ride Improbable and Charlatan, particularly since it’s for a trainer who helped his career reach new heights a decade ago.
“I’ve been pretty lucky because he had options to put anybody on these horses and then he gives me a chance,” Garcia said. “I’ve been lucky. Those opportunities don’t come every day and I just have to take advantage of that.”
Garcia enters the final three scheduled days of the meeting with 51 victories, three less than six-time local riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. Joe Talamo, another former Southern California fixture riding regularly at Oaklawn for the first time, is third with 50. Defending champion David Cohen is fourth with 44.
“I don’t care,” Garcia said, when asked if he can catch Santana. “I’m just having fun. Been lucky. I have had a lot of support from good people and my agent, he’s doing a good job.”
Overall, Garcia and Baffert had teamed for 443 career victories through Sunday, including nine at Oaklawn. Four local victories have come in stakes, including the $900,000 Rebel (G2) in 2016 with Cupid.
Garcia said he will ride at Churchill Downs after Oaklawn closes.
Can the champ deliver?
Brad Cox can become the first trainer to sweep Oaklawn’s three Kentucky Oaks points races with different horses if Eclipse Award winner British Idiom captures Friday’s $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles.
Cox won the $150,000 Martha Washington Stakes Feb. 1 with Taraz and the $300,000 Honeybee Stakes (G3) March 7 with Shedaresthedevil, co-owned by Staton Flurry of Hot Springs. The Martha Washington, which became a two-turn race in 2004, has been won by, among others, future Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra (2009), champion Take Charge Brandi (2015) and future multiple graded stakes winner Red Ruby (2018). Rachel Alexandra returned to win the Fantasy.
British Idiom capped a 3 for 3 championship campaign last year with a victory in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) Nov. 1 at Santa Anita. Stablemate Shedaresthedevil punched her ticket to the Fantasy with a victory in the Honeybee.
“It says a lot about the depth we have with the 3-year-old fillies,” said Cox, who won the 2018 Fantasy with Sassy Sienna. “However we do it, whichever one wins, hopefully, we can get it done.”
British Idiom will be making her local debut after suffering her first career loss in the $300,000 Rachel Alexandra Stakes (G2) Feb. 15 at Fair Grounds. She had been scheduled to make her next start in the $500,000 Ashland Stakes (G1) April 4 at Keeneland before the Lexington, Ky., track canceled its spring meeting (Covid-19). After Churchill Downs responded to the Covid-19 crisis by moving the Kentucky Oaks from May 1 to Sept. 4, Oaklawn shifted the Fantasy from April 10 to Friday.
“Their training, it’s trying to keep them on a schedule,” Cox said. “They’re both doing extremely well. I expect them to run their ‘A’ race, I know that.”
Shedaresthedevil will be making her third start for Cox after being purchased for $280,000 at Keeneland’s November Breeding Stock Sale. In her Feb. 15 local debut, Shedaresthedevil finished second, beaten three-quarters of a length, by stablemate Bonny South in an entry-level allowance race at 1 1/16 miles. Bonny South won the $400,000 Fair Grounds Oaks (G2) March 21 at Fair Grounds in her next start. Shedaresthedevil returned to capture the Honeybee, the traditional final major local prep for the Fantasy, in her next start.
“She’s a phenomenal work horse,” Cox said. “She gave us the confidence to go from running second in a one-other-than, having the condition, and skipping the one-other-than that was offered in the book there right before the Honeybee. She gives you a lot of confidence as a trainer.”
Bonny South has 100 points to rank second on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard. British Idiom and Shedaresthedevil each have 50 points to rank seventh and eighth, respectively (non-restricted stakes earnings break ties). The 1 1/8-mile race is limited to 14 starters, with starting preference given to horses with the highest point totals earned in designated races like the Martha Washington, Honeybee and Fantasy. The Fantasy offers 170 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points to its top four finishers (100-40-20-10).
Bonny South returned to the work tab last Saturday at Keeneland, covering 3 furlongs in :36.40. Cox said he decided to back off Bonny South following the Fair Grounds Oaks because she already has 100 Kentucky Oaks qualifying points and a secure spot in the starting gate.
“Where we land, we don’t know yet,” Cox said of Bonny South’s next start. “Hopefully, we’ll be up and racing and they’ll be some options for us soon.”
Lazy Daisy Makes Debut in Tough Fantasy
Under normal circumstances, trainer Doug O’Neill most likely wouldn’t have chosen a stakes with a 14-horse field for Lazy Daisy’s seasonal debut, but with limited options, he decided to take a chance in Friday’s Fantasy. The 3-year-old Paynter filly hasn’t started since finishing sixth to British Idiom after a troubled trip in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) last November. One race earlier, she won the Pocahontas Stakes (G2) at Churchill Downs.
“It’s obviously a really difficult spot, but she’s a hard-knocking filly and there wasn’t a lot of options for her,” O’Neill said. “She is training well, but at the same time we are all realistic and think that if she could split the field or better, that would be a gift and we’d be grateful that because it will give us something to build on. We are throwing her into the deep end for sure.”
Lazy Daisy arrived at Oaklawn in early April and has had three works over the track, including a half mile breeze from the gate in :48 1/5 April 25.
“According to the boys in the barn, they are extremely happy with her,” O’Neill said. “She’s eating well. Her appetite is good and her energy is good. We took her to the gate for the last work since she hasn’t run in a while just to put the gate back in her mind. She broke well and worked full of energy. (Jockey) David Cohen breezed her that day and said that when he went to pull her up, she wanted to take off again. We’re pumped and happy that she’s back, race ready. We’re looking forward to seeing her compete again.”
“I think ideally, good clean break and settle her. When they have been off and are fresh, if you ask for too much early, they won’t finish. It’s just not physically possible. We’re just going to try and save as much ground as possible and try to use her energy finishing up. If we get a productive effort, we’re all going to be happy with that.
This marks the third straight year that O’Neill has had a string at Oaklawn and the trainer said he expects to return again in 2021.
“I couldn’t be happier with the crew there,” O’Neill said. “We have horsemen there that sacrificed their families to move to Hot Springs for four months for us and they’ve been treated like kings. Couldn’t be happier with the results. With no racing in California, it’s been a dream come true to still have the ability to compete during this unusual time of the pandemic. I would say we’d be back next year. There are just so many opportunities there. I love the town and it makes you proud to be part of the racing in Hot Springs.”
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s unbeaten 3-year-olds, Nadal and Charlatan, arrived Tuesday following a flight that originated earlier in the day in Southern California. Both are entered in Saturday’s split $500,000 Arkansas Derby (G1) for 3-year-olds. Arriving on the same flight was another Arkansas Derby entrant, 2-year-old champion male Storm the Court, for trainer Peter Eurton. … Mexican star Letruska (8 for 9 overall) is entered in Thursday’s eighth race, a 1-mile allowance for older fillies and mares, for trainer Fausto Gutierrez. Previously based in south Florida, Letruska represented the first Oaklawn starter for Gutierrez in an April 16 allowance victory. Also entered are Motion Emotion, runner-up in the $500,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) last year at Oaklawn, and 2017 Fantasy third Vexatious. … Jon Court, Oaklawn’s leading rider in 2000, is scheduled to make his comeback in Friday’s fifth race aboard Colonelsdarktemper for trainer Jinks Fires of Hot Springs. Court, 59, hasn’t ridden since Feb. 13 after sustaining broken ribs and a collapsed lung, in an accident going to the gate for a race, his longtime agent, “Big Steve” Krajcir of Hot Springs, said. Court, who is named on two horses Saturday, has 4,181 career victories to rank 63rd in North American history, according to Equibase, racing’s official data gathering organization. Court has 688 career victories at Oaklawn, the first coming in 1981.