Trainer Bob Baffert reinforced his hand for the Breeders’ Cup Classic with another ace performance on Saturday, as Improbable convincingly won the Grade I Awesome Again at Santa Anita Park.
Coming off a win in the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga Race Course, Improbable and jockey Drayden Van Dyke used a last-to-first move in the five-horse Awesome Again to beat stablemate Maximum Security, the 1-2 betting favorite.
Maximum Security, who was the leader of the older dirt male division coming in, battled between horses behind big long shot front-runner Take the One O One until midway through the second turn.
By then, Improbable was making a big move on the outside and rolled home, as Maximum Security did well to hold off Midcourt for second.
“I knew I was coming in with two really good horses,” Baffert told the TVG Network. “When Max was in there scrubbing between horses, Drayden saw what was happening, took his time and used patience. This horse loves this track, too.
“I hate to see my horses beat each other, but Maximum Security fended off all the speed. But the big one is next.”
Firenze Fire solidified his status as one of the more interesting sprinters in North America by winning the Grade I Vosburgh over four rivals at Belmont Park.
Ridden by Jose Lezcano, Firenze Fire took command without much difficulty inside the eighth pole and won in convincing fashion on his favorite track. For the second year in a row, he ran in the A.G. Vanderbilt and Forego at Saratoga Race Course, and lost in both again.
He’ll point toward the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland, where he has never run in 29 career starts. Firenze Fire was fifth in the BC Sprint last year and fourth in the BC Dirt Mile in 2018.
“I can say he doesn’t like the mud [following a last-place effort in the Forego],” trainer Kelly Breen told the New York Racing Assocition. “You can put a line through his last race and he really performed today. He loves Belmont.
“We’ll have to get him as used to Keeneland as he is to Belmont. I’ll bring a couple of buckets from here and put it down the Keeneland stretch and bring our track to Keeneland.”
Also on the Belmont card, trainer Chad Brown won the Grade III Noble Damsel for the fifth year in a row, hitting the Chadxacta with Viadera catching front-running Blowout by a neck.
It was the second win by a neck over a stablemate in a row for Viadera, who just beat Noor Saraha in the De La Rose at Saratoga Race Course on July 17. Noor Sahara finished fourth in the Noble Damsel.
“Viadera got a great set-up saving all the ground, and I’m really proud of her,” Brown said. “Blowout probably ran the best race. The fractions were grueling, and it was hard to stomach watching it unfold, but she held on gamely and nearly won.
“The winner, Viadera, really got a great trip from Joel [Rosario] and she’s a fine filly in her own right. She’s really put it together her last two starts with two nice wins.”
The draw for next Saturday’s Preakness at Pimlico will take place at noon on Monday.
In the final round of breezes for the Preakness, the Baffert-trained Thousand Words worked five furlongs in blinkers in 1:00.60 at Churchill Downs on Saturday morning, galloping out in 1:13.60 after a mystifying 1:02.40 last weekend.
Thousand Words was supposed to run in the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, won by stablemate Authentic, but flipped in the paddock minutes before the Derby and was scratched.
Baffert told the Maryland Jockey Club staff that he was encouraged by Thousand Words’ work, under jockey Florent Geroux, on Saturday.
“We were hoping that he would do something like this,” Baffert said. “He had to work better than he did last week. Last week, he was just sort of lazy and didn’t get into it, but now he worked really well.”
“I feel better about it [Preakness]. This week he was very willing, which is very good. You want to see a horse that is very willing, and he was very willing today.”
Baffert said he has not decided whether Thousand Words will wear blinkers if he goes in the Preakness.
Blue Grass and Ellis Park Derby winner Art Collector, a top Derby contender who missed the race with a minor injury, breezed four furlongs at Churchill in 48 seconds, the seventh fastest of 78 published works at that distance on the main track.
“He amazes you every time he goes out there,” jockey Brian Hernandez said. “He just does everything so easy. He knows his job. Again this morning, he got under the wire and jumped up and took off again. He knows what the pattern has been with him and he’s gotten into the routine and does his own thing out there.”
“I think he got plenty out of his work last week, so we were just looking for some maintenance this week,” trainer Tommy Drury said, “and that’s kind of his maintenance work. Brian was letting him cruise along. I didn’t see that he ever moved his hands. We got exactly what we were looking for.”
Trainer Todd Pletcher said neither of his two Preakness prospects, Federico Tesio winner Happy Saver and Belmont Stakes runner-up Dr Post, would run in the race. Happy Saver will be pointed toward the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Peter Pan winner Country Grammer worked four furlongs in 50.25 and will be sent to the Preakness by Brown. He was fifth to Tiz the Law in the Travers last time out.
Jim Dandy winner Mystic Guide had his work at Fair Hill in Maryland postponed to Sunday because of a muddy track. Trainer Michael Stidham said Mystic Guide would likely run in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park instead of the Preakness.
Churchill-based Preakness runners scheduled to leave Louisville for Baltimore on Tuesday include Authentic, Thousand Words, Art Collector, Max Player, Mr. Big News, the filly Swiss Skydiver and Excession.