Shortening Saturday’s $300,000 San Antonio (G2) to 1 1/16 miles wasn’t enough to thwart defending champion Hoppertunity, who came charging late to join an elite club – and punch his ticket to the $10 million Dubai World Cup (G1).
Only three others have repeated in the San Antonio, historically a 1 1/8-mile affair – Hall of Famer Gun Bow (1964-65), Argentine champion Gentlemen (Arg) (1997-98), and prolific $6.4 million-earner Game on Dude (2012-13), Hoppertunity’s erstwhile stablemate from the Bob Baffert barn.
While Hoppertunity is well behind Game on Dude’s career Grade 1 total (at a score of eight to two), the admirable money-spinner has time to close in on his bankroll. His second straight San Antonio advanced his scorecard to 25-7-6-4 and pushed his career earnings to $4,066,425, with much more cash on the table coming up in Dubai.
The 5-2 second choice in this seasonal reappearance, Hoppertunity was allowed to drop back to last early by the red-hot Flavien Prat. Meanwhile, front-running longshot El Huerfano sped through fractions of :23.18, :46.30 and 1:10.39 on Santa Anita’s fast track. Hoppertunity’s better-fancied stablemate, 9-5 favorite Mor Spirit, was arguably closer to the pace than expected. After Mor Spirit loomed up to confront the leader, he was already beginning to labor in upper stretch.
Hoppertunity, on the other hand, was just winding up. Gaining momentum fast on the outside, the six-year-old swept past to a one-length decision in a sprightly 1:42.55. Mor Spirit held second by three-quarters of a length from Accelerate, who headed El Huerfano for third.
Considering that Hoppertunity needed every inch of the 1 1/8 miles in last year’s San Antonio, before going on to place third in the Dubai World Cup, his performance here bodes well for his next visit to Meydan on March 25. His all-world stablemate Arrogate is unlikely to go (as of now), and there’ll be no California Chrome lying in wait this time. The circumstances may be lining up for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Hoppertunity, much as the 2001 World Cup came up a winnable spot for Baffert’s Captain Steve.
Campaigned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman, Hoppertunity has captured the 2014 Clark H. (G1) and Rebel (G2), 2015 San Pasqual (G2), and last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), in addition to his San Antonio double. His list of placings is even longer, featuring seconds in such majors as the Santa Anita Derby (G1) (in 2014 to California Chrome), the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) (by an unfortunate whisker to Hard Aces in 2015), and as the defending Clark champion. He ended 2016 with fourths in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) and the Clark.
“I think he may be better than he was last year. He seems better,” Prat said.
“He was training really, really well for this,” Baffert said. “It’s like the best I’ve ever seen him train. Prat worked him the other day and the track was really fast. He went (six furlongs) in 10 and four (January 30). I was afraid they went too fast but they were doing it the right way.
“As long as he’s doing well, we’ll go to Dubai and see if we can get another win. That was the plan all along.”
Baffert was also pleased with the runner-up effort by Mor Spirit.
“He was part of that pace up front and they were going pretty fast,” the Hall of Famer noted. “I think he’ll move forward because he’s a big, heavy horse.”
Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith sounded a similar theme regarding this second-off-the-layoff try.
“He needed this,” Smith said. “Going around two turns is what he wants. I’m not too sure I got enough out of it I guess, going seven-eighths (when fourth in the Malibu [G1]).
“Speed has been playing good so I tried to stay fairly close.
“This race should really set him up. Now he’ll be really fit to run huge next time out.”
One race after the San Antonio, Prat completed a sweep of the Late Pick 4 aboard Matthew Schera’s Isotherm in the $201,380 San Marcos (G2).
It’s a measure of just how well Prat is going at the moment that he was able to work out a trip for the often luck-challenged 7-1 chance. Trained by George Weaver, Isotherm had gone winless since his score in the 2015 Pilgrim (G3). The Lonhro colt suffered a tough beat in last year’s Dania Berach (G3), placed in the Commonwealth Derby (G2) and Saranac (G3), and typically found himself inconvenienced throughout the season.
Although Isotherm had to steady as the field crossed the strip of dirt, Prat secured a good stalking position just off the pace. Itsinthepost (Fr), who had been vying with A Red Tie Day through splits of :24.34, :49.07, 1:13.71 and 1:37.14, began to assert down the lane. But a yawning gap also opened, and Isotherm picked up well to nab Itsinthepost by a half-length. Flamboyant (Fr) was along belatedly for third in his title defense, nipping Hi Happy (Arg). A Red Tie Day wound up fifth, and 2-1 favorite Texas Ryano a non-threatening sixth of nine.
Aside from Prat’s handling, Isotherm also appreciated the stretch-out to 1 1/4 miles here. The four-year-old clocked 2:00.23, and his resume now reads 12-3-2-1, $399,629.
“The horse has done nothing but improve,” assistant trainer Austin Trites said, adding that Isotherm had prospered once given the time to acclimate to his winter home.
“Most of his trips wind up with us wanting to pull our hair out, so this was amazing. Flavien Prat has a nose for the pocket and managed to get a perfect trip today.”
“We didn’t go that fast,” Prat said, “so I was sitting just behind the pace and thought he’d have a good shot. It worked out well.
“Today, I knew I had some good shots. Everything worked out really well and I’m pretty lucky.”