SAN CARLOS STAKES | PURSE: $200,000 | 4-YEAR-OLDS & UP | GRADE 2 | 7 FURLONGS
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert has been on a torrid winning streak of late, and George Bolton and Fog City Stable's The Factor kept up the barn's momentum in Saturday's Grade 2, $200,000 San Carlos at Santa Anita. After the 3-5 favorite posted a front-running victory beneath Martin Garcia, and remained perfect from four starts at this seven-furlong trip, Bolton boldly declared that The Factor could clash with Australia's unbeaten superstar Black Caviar in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee on June 23 at Royal Ascot.
Baffert, who has now won with 16 of his last 17 starters nationally, sounded much less enthusiastic about the proposition of taking on the world's champion sprinter on her surface -- turf.
"My plan is to see how he comes out of it," Baffert said. "We have Dubai [the Group 1 Golden Shaheen on March 31], and George has been kicking around the Ascot thing, but there are more negatives than there are positives to it. For right now, we just want to soak up the win and enjoy it."
The Factor, who was last seen rolling to a 3 1/2-length decision in the Grade 1 Malibu at this track and trip on December 26, found the San Carlos a straightforward task. The only suspense came courtesy of a stewards' inquiry following the race. The Factor momentarily tightened up Canonize, the 17-1 longest shot on the board, who was trying to rally up the fence. But The Factor was quickly righted by Martin Garcia, Canonize ended up fourth, and the stewards saw no reason to overturn the result, ruling that Canonize had enough room.
"I was a lane in front of Victor [Espinoza's] horse [Canonize]," Garcia said. "I came in a little today, but there was nobody there and I'm not sure why there was an inquiry."
Malibu runner-up Rothko sprinted out of the gate and showed in front in the opening strides, but The Factor took over by the time they reached an opening quarter in :22 2/5. The gray was on veritable cruise control through a half-mile in :44 2/5, continued his relentless pace into the stretch, and hit the six-furlong mark in 1:08.
Amazombie, last year's champion sprinter who was making his first start since taking the Breeders' Cup Sprint, chased in third much of the way. The six-furlong specialist attempted to make headway down the lane, but couldn't pose a serious threat. Canonize briefly loomed a greater danger on the inside, but his bid flattened out after he was steadied.
Sway Away, last until midstretch in his return from an eight-month layoff, angled out for the drive and rallied smartly. The deep closer steadily reduced the deficit, much as he had done when going after The Factor in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes one year ago here.
In an eerily reminiscent finish, The Factor held Sway Away off by a half-length, virtually reprising the 2011 San Vicente. The winner stopped the teletimer in 1:20 2/5 on the fast track and paid $3.40, $2.80 and $2.10.
"My horse was the only speed today," Garcia said, "so nobody wanted to let him go on the lead by himself. My horse was really comfortable on the backstretch and that's the way he wants to run. He's been learning more and more every time he runs and he's improving so much. He's just going to get better and better."
"He [Sway Away] ran a good race," trainer Jeff Bonde said. "We're proud of his race. He was off since June, so you can't complain when a horse runs that well first time back, but it's frustrating, you know. We were hoping somebody would pressure him [The Factor] a little harder and, it just is what it is. But our horse ran well. I'm not going to complain."
It would have been nicer if there were more horses and a little more pace today, but the first race back going seven-eighths is always really tough, especially with those caliber of horses.
”-- Mike Smith, jockey of Amazombie
Amazombie checked in another 1 3/4 lengths away in third, becoming the third Breeders' Cup winner to lose in their reappearances Saturday. At Gulfstream Park, Ladies' Classic heroine Royal Delta was a distant second in the Grade 3 Sabin, and Filly & Mare Turf shocker Perfect Shirl wound up eighth in the Grade 3 The Very One.
The champion's connections believe that Amazombie will show more in his second start of 2012.
"It would have been nicer if there were more horses and a little more pace today," jockey Mike Smith said, "but the first race back going seven-eighths is always really tough, especially with those caliber of horses. I'm happy he ran the way he did. He only got beat a couple lengths for all of it against some top-notch horses. I mean, The Factor will probably be one of the favorites in the Breeder's Cup if he runs there. I was happy with his race and I know he has a whole lot of room to improve."
"Watch, just watch," trainer Bill Spawr said of Amazombie's expected progress. "We thought he needed it [the race]. We'll see what happens next time, OK? We're on target for where we want to be in the Breeders' Cup [at Santa Anita November 3]."
Canonize, who missed third by just a head, crossed the wire 5 3/4 lengths ahead of the trailing Rothko. Mensa Heat was withdrawn.
The Factor's fifth career stakes triumph advanced his scorecard to 10-6-0-0 while boosting his bankroll to $772,180. A track record-setting maiden winner when blazing six furlongs in 1:06 4/5 at Santa Anita in December 2010, he captured the San Vicente in his stakes debut, and successfully stretched out to two turns in the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn Park. His Kentucky Derby aspirations were ended with a seventh in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby.
After recuperating from a hairline fracture in a hind ankle, The Factor concentrated on one-turn races in the second half of his sophomore campaign. The War Front colt returned to defeat older horses in the Grade 1 Pat O'Brien over seven furlongs at Del Mar, but lost his way again when fourth to Amazombie in the Grade 1 Ancient Title (his only loss at Santa Anita) and eighth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. The Factor bounced back in the aforementioned Malibu, on the anniversary of his maiden romp.
"I'm just glad The Factor showed up today," Baffert said following the San Carlos. "He ran really hard. He was pretty tired when he came back, but we're excited the way he ran. He's always been brilliant since Day One. He's already there with Midnight Lute (a champion and two-time Breeders' Cup Sprint winner) and those kind of horses. For some reason, after Del Mar, he took a step back on me, so we freshened him up.
"He came back for the Malibu -- we really tightened the screws for that race. This race, we sort of took it easy on him, and I was hoping he could just get by on what we had given him.
"The Factor really dug in today. It looked like they were going to come to him a little bit, then he took off again. Like I said, I've got a great staff, they work hard, everybody's focused right now. That's why we're doing well. We're picking the right spots for these horses, and that's the most important thing."
Bred in Kentucky by H & W Thoroughbreds, The Factor has been sold at auction three times. He fetched $50,000 as a Keeneland November weanling, $40,000 as a Fasig-Tipton Kentucky July yearling, and finally $250,000 as a Barretts May two-year-old in training. The Factor is out of the winning Miswaki mare Greyciousness, herself a half-sister to 1999 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Grade 1 Champagne runner-up Chief Seattle. This is the same family as Canadian classic winner and Grade 3-placed Perfect Shower and multiple Peruvian Group 1-winning Maeto.