By Bill Finley
Ax Man (Misremembered) is a hot prospect and will be favored in Saturday's seven-furlong GII San Vicente S. at Santa Anita, but he has a way to go to reach the top of the pecking order in the Bob Baffert stable. As is so often the case, the Hall of Fame trainer is loaded with 3-year-old male talent and is beginning to devise the schedule for his team as he prepares to get them to Churchill Downs. Baffert has at least seven colts at this point that he considers prospects for the GI Kentucky Derby.
Ax Man is the “now” horse in the Baffert stable. He made his debut in a Jan. 1 maiden race at Santa Anita and won by 9 1/2 lengths. Because the race was restricted to homebreds or yearlings that cost $100,000 or less, there was some speculation that Ax Man didn't beat the best of fields. But Lombo (Graydar), who was third, beaten 10 1/2 lengths in that race, has since come back to win the GIII Robert B. Lewis.
When asked if he thought he had enough time to get the lightly raced Ax Man ready for the Derby, Baffert replied: “I think if he's good enough he can do it. The San Vicente will be a big step for him, especially out of the one hole. He's fast and he's quick. He's a light-framed horse and I haven't seen any distance limitations with him. But you don't know that until they're put under the gun.”
Baffert will also start Nero (Pioneerof the Nile) in the San Vicente. He broke his maiden Jan. 13 in his second career start.
“He has a lot of talent, but was a little bit quirky at first,” the trainer said. “He's starting to figure things out and he worked really well for this race. He likes to have a target and he'll definitely have a target in this race. I think he should run well also.”
Baffert said he likes to nominate his top 3-year-olds to “just about everything,” which allows him to leave his options open.
“Whichever one is doing great that week gets on the plane and runs that week,” he said.
The top two in the Baffert lineup at this point are 'TDN Rising Star' McKinzie (Street Sense) and Solomini (Curlin). Solomini crossed the wire first in the Dec. 9 GI Los Alamitos Futurity, but was disqualified, resulting in McKinzie being placed first. Solomini has not run since, while McKinzie has since won the GIII Sham S.
Baffert said one of the two will go next in the GII San Felipe Mar. 10 at Santa Anita, while the other will go in the Mar. 17 GII Rebel at Oaklawn.
“I just go by the way I feel the horse is doing,” he said. “I know McKinzie and Solomoni have already proven themselves. I'm just trying to keep them healthy and give them a positive prep going in.”
Baffert has penciled in the Feb. 19 GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn for Mourinho (Super Saver), who won earlier at the meet in the Smarty Jones S. Baffert expects the race to be split into two divisions and is looking at also running 'TDN Rising Star' Zulfikhar (Bodemeister). That colt has not raced since winning a July 17 maiden at Los Alamitos, but Baffert is high on him.
He has another lightly raced but talented horse in Restoring Hope (Giant's Causeway). He broke his maiden Feb. 2 in his third lifetime start and Baffert is shopping for a Derby prep for him as well. Baffert normally relies on the Santa Anita and Oaklawn routes to get to the Derby, but says with so many candidates this year, you may see him in races he rarely runs in.
“I think you'll see us in the [GII] Blue Grass or maybe we could go to Gulfstream and run one there,” he said. “We have a few here we're getting ready.”
When asked if he thought this could be one of his best groups of 3-year-olds, Baffert was hesitant to go that far.
“The year I had American Pharoah and Dortmund, that was a really good year, and so was the year I had Real Quiet and Indian Charlie,” he said. “I've had some strong hands. It's still early. Over the next month, that is when the serious stuff starts happening.”