Spa Finale: Baffert 2-Year-Olds Make Rare Appearance in Hopeful

He has so many 2-year-olds, Bob Baffert sometimes just doesn’t know what to do. He’s hopeful, though, that the pair he sends to Saratoga will fare well at the track’s traditional closing day $300,000 Hopeful Stakes (G1).

The Hall of Fame trainer entered Muth and Mission Beach in the 7-furlong Hopeful, a race that could determine whether a 2-year-old is ready to move on to longer distances with the goal of running in the 1 ¼-mile Kentucky Derby (G1) in eight months.

Two other promising 2-year-olds from Baffert’s stable, Prince of Monaco and Heartland, are likely to run in the Del Mar Futurity (G1) on Sept. 10. Baffert has 37 Baffert 2-year-olds nominated to the Futurity: “We have a nice group of 2-year-olds.”

West Coast-based Baffert has started only two horses in the Hopeful – Too Much Bling and Maimonides, with each finishing third in 2005 and 2007, respectively.

While Baffert is looking for his first Hopeful win, Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas has a chance to extend his record Hopeful victory total to nine with Just Steel. Fellow Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher is in search of a fifth Hopeful win with Be You and Pirate.

A field of 11 is entered, and with just a race or two on their resumes, there are plenty of chances to make some money for savvy handicappers.

Muth, Mission Beach

 Muth (the 5-2 favorite), a $2 million purchase in April by Saudi Arabian billionaire Amr Zedan, won his first career start by 8 ¾ lengths at Santa Anita on June 18. In the 6-furlong Best Pal (G3), he was bumped by stablemate Prince of Monaco at the start, battled back and briefly took the lead from him but was beaten 4 ¼ lengths. Baffert said Muth “got caught up in a speed duel and got beat by a good horse,’’ referring to Prince of Monaco.

“He’s a fast horse and he got a little tired last time. It’s a different track and we don’t know how he’s going to handle it, so hopefully he handles it well,” Baffert said.

Mission Beach (10-1) is 1-for-1, winning by 1 ¼ lengths at Del Mar on Aug. 5. Baffert calls this son of Curlin a two-turn horse. He will be ridden by John Velazquez leaving from post 4; Muth leaves from post 7 under Flavien Prat.

“He’s bred for longer distances. He’s not a sprinter and usually the sprinters are tough in those races,” Baffert said. “We’re hoping for a dry, fast track. He’s a nice horse and we’ll learn more about him.”

Pletcher’s duo

Pirate (8-1) posted a three-length victory over Just Steel in his one and only start, leading gate-to-wire going 5 1/2 furlong at the Spa on July 15 under Irad Ortiz, Jr. Javier Castellano has the call on Monday, leaving from post 11.

“He’s been impressive even before his debut and he’s had a good series of breezes since then,’’ Pletcher said. “We’re optimistic that he’s about to make another step forward.

Be You (9-2) and Just Steel (10-1) went at it at the Spa on Aug. 5, with Lukas’ Just Steel winning by a nose after a little bumping and lead-changing in the final sixteenth of a mile in the 6-furlong race.

“He just got beat in a tough maiden race and he’s been training well since then,” Pletcher said. “We’re looking at it like he got beat by a nose, and if he had won by a nose we would be running here.”

Ortiz has the call aboard Be You from post 10; Joel Rosario rides Just Steel out of post 1.

Timberlake also a winning option

 And let’s not exclude the chances of Brad Cox-trained Timberlake (4-1), an impressive 9 ¼-length winner at Ellis Park on July 21.

“He’s very precocious and he continues to do well. He’s always been a horse that stood out as a top talent. We’ll see if he’s a Grade 1 talent on Monday,” Cox said.

Asmussen sends out two, Gold Sweep, Valentine Candy

Trainer Steve Asmussen saddle Gold Sweep (6-1) and Valentine Candy (12-1) as he seeks a fourth Hopeful win in the past five years. He won in 2019-20-21 with Basin, Jackie’s Warrior, and Gunite. Gulfport ran second to Forte in 2022.

Post time for the Hopeful is 5:44 p.m. ET

The picks: 1 Muth 2 Timberlake 3 Pirate

Bernard Baruch on undercard

Wit makes his long-awaited return in the $150,000 Bernard Baruch for older turf horses going 1 1/16 miles.

Trained by Todd Pletcher, the 4-year-old returns after a seven-month break following an eighth-place finish in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (G1) at Gulfstream Park. His two biggest wins came at the Spa – an eight-length win in the 2021 Sanford (G3) and a 2 ¾-length score in the 2022 Better Talk Now.

“We gave him a little break and freshened him up. It took a little while to get him ready, but here we are,’’ Pletcher said. “It’s a challenge off the layoff, but we like the way he’s doing.”

Wit has a record of 11-4-3-2. Jose Ortiz rides from post 4. A field of six is entered. 

The field for the $300,000 Hopeful (G1), from the rail out, with jockey, trainer, odds:

1 Just Steel (Joel Rosario, D. Wayne Lukas), 10-1
2 Yo Yo Candy (Angel Castillo, Danny Velazquez), 20-1
3 Nutella Fella (Junior Alvarado, Gary Contessa), 30-1
4 Mission Beach (John Velazquez, Bob Baffert), 10-1
5 Timberlake (Florent Geroux, Brad Cox), 4-1
6 Gold Sweep (Jose Ortiz, Steve Asmussen), 6-1
7 Muth (Flavien Prat, Bob Baffert), 5-2
8 Baytown Chatterbox (Dylan Davis, Paul McEntee), 50-1
9 Valentine Candy (Tyler Gaffalione, Steve Asmussen), 12-1
10 Be You (Irad Ortiz, Jr., Todd Pletcher), 9-2
11 Pirate (Javier Castellano, Todd Pletcher), 8-1





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