By Kurt Voigt
The Associated Press
HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Bob Baffert was sitting poolside in Mexico on Monday when he received word about an ongoing thunderstorm at Oaklawn Park.
The trainer wasn’t concerned about the weather in the least, and neither was his standout thoroughbred Super Ninety Nine, who led from the start while posting an 111⁄4-length win in the $300,000 Southwest Stakes.
Baffert watched the runaway victory on his computer while on vacation, a win that continued his incredible run at Oaklawn in Kentucky Derby prep races.
He’s now won three straight in the Southwest Stakes and five Grade 3 races at Oaklawn overall, including last year’s Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby.
“The weather conditions weren’t really great, but I think my horse is the only one that loved it,” Baffert said during a post-race teleconference.
Super Ninety Nine, who won its only other start of the year at Santa Anita on Jan. 31, began the day as a 7-5 favorite before going off at even money. Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, the colt paid $4, $3.80 and $3. Fear The Kitten was second and paid $11.60 and $6.60, while Heaven’s Runway was third and paid $11.60 to show.
“With the way he broke and speed we had, everything went well,” Bejarano said. “There at the end, my horse still had something left.”
Baffert won both divisions of the same race a year ago, when it was split after 21 horses were entered. Castaway and Secret Circle were the winners on that day, with Bejarano in the saddle for both victories.
Super Ninety Nine broke quickly from the gate, holding off an early challenge from Heaven’s Runway, and had the inside position into the first turn of the 11⁄16-mile race. The colt maintained its lead on the back stretch and pulled away from its only other significant challenge by Always In A Tiz, who was the second pick behind Super Ninety Nine.
Always In A Tiz, ridden by Paco Lopez, finished a distant fifth from the fifth position.
“(Lopez) said he just wasn’t handling it at all,” trainer Dominick Schettino said. “We had a great trip, sitting right there on the outside, but then when Paco asked him on the turn, he started switching his leads back and forth and not getting anywhere. Back to the drawing board.”
Oaklawn dodged showers for much of the day, but the skies opened up 30 minutes before the featured race.
The rain lightened to a small drizzle in the moments before post time, but the track — which had been rated as fast throughout the day — was a sloppy for the 1:44.84 winning lap.
“The break was so important today,” Baffert said.
Rain or no rain, Super Ninety Nine was clearly the class of the field.
And his performance was enough for Baffert to say he’s already considering bringing him back for the Arkansas Derby.
The colt earned $180,000 for the win, plus valuable points in the new Kentucky Derby points system. Fear the Kitten won $60,000, while Heaven’s Runway earned $30,000.
“Until you stretch them out and start going two turns with these horses, you really don’t ... They start showing their ability,” Baffert said. “You’re always hoping they’ll go two turns, but this horse seems like he can.
“You look at him, hand he’s built like a sprinter. He’s a big, strong horse.”
Oaklawn’s series of Kentucky Derby prep races continues with the $600,000 Rebel Stakes on March 16th and the Arkansas Derby on April 13th.
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