BAFFERT UNLEASHES PRIME DERBY PROSPECT LIAISON IN LEWIS STAKES; TAPIZAR HEADS STRUB; MR. COMMONS TOPS ARCADIA AS SANTA ANITA PRESENTS GRADE II STAKES TRIPLEHEADER ON SATURDAY

ARCADIA, Calif. (Feb. 1, 2012) – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert amps up his assault on the April 7 Santa Anita Derby (Grade I) and Triple Crown events beyond on Saturday when sending out his most accomplished Kentucky Derby prospect, Liaison, in Santa Anita’s Grade II, $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles.

The Lewis is one of three Grade II stakes to be contested on Saturday’s Strub Stakes Day, a reference to the track’s historic $200,000 Strub Stakes at 1 1/8 miles for 4-year-olds which is headed by trainer Steve Asmussen’s Tapizar, already deemed a leading candidate for the March 3 Santa Anita Handicap. The $150,000 Arcadia, at one mile on turf, completes the afternoon’s graded stakes tripleheader.

But as is the norm when spring is approaching, the general attention of the racing public turns to the 3-year-olds, and Baffert is almost certain to be center stage as his accomplishments include nine Triple Crown victories and wins in 6 of the last 16 Santa Anita Derbies.

Liaison – sired by 1998 Santa Anita Derby winner Indian Charlie and owned by Arnold Zetcher, whose Midnight Interlude won the event last year – returns to action following a seven-week respite after his triumph in Hollywood Park’s Grade I, $750,000 CashCall Futurity. He will face seven of his contemporaries on Saturday.

The neck victory over Lewis entrant Rousing Sermon was the third win in four starts for Liaison and followed a half-length score over Rousing Sermon in Hollywood Park’s $100,000 Real Quiet Stakes. Both races were contested at the Lewis distance of 1 1/16 miles, and both were raced over Hollywood Park’s artificial Cushion Track surface. Liaison, however, demonstrated his affinity for Santa Anita’s dirt strip when breaking his maiden by 2 ½ lengths at seven furlongs last Oct. 14 in his only previous exposure to a surface he must handle in the major challenges that lie ahead.

Liaison worked six furlongs in a snappy 1:11.80 at Santa Anita last week in preparation for Saturday’s assignment. “He just keeps moving forward,” Baffert noted of the bay colt who earned $469,560 as a 2-year-old.

Rafael Bejarano, aboard for all four of Liaison’s races, will rejoin the $290,000 yearling sales purchase in the Lewis, formerly run as the Santa Catalina. It was renamed in 2007 to memorialize the popular owner and philanthropist who had been one of Baffert’s major clients prior to his passing in 2006.

A winner of four Santa Anita riding titles but yet to win his first Santa Anita Derby, Bejarano seems confident about his future with Liaison. “He’s just going to improve off of this race,” Bejarano said following the CashCall. “I’m really happy with this horse. (Baffert) has done an awesome job with him.”

Liaison nonetheless has twice been stretched to get the better of Rousing Sermon, who flew home from 11th to miss by a neck in the Futurity. His rally fell one-half length short when second to Liaison in the Real Quiet. Rousing Sermon, like Liaison, has won his only previous start on dirt in Santa Anita’s $100,000 California Cup Juvenile Stakes on Oct. 29.

Trained by recent Hall of Fame inductee Jerry Hollendorfer for Mr. & Mrs. Larry D. Williams, the homebred son of Lucky Pulpit retains the riding services of Joe Talamo. Rousing Sermon raced six times as a 2-year-old while posting a 2-2-2 record for earnings of $274,000. “We’re all ready to go,” Hollendorfer said following a recent drill at Santa Anita.

Liaison will be joined in the Lewis lineup by stablemate Sky Kingdom, fourth in the Futurity and the winner of a Santa Anita allowance race by 4 ½ lengths on Jan. 12. “I hate to run them against each other,” commented Baffert, who said his options were few. Martin Garcia will ride the son of Empire Maker who has won 2 of 5 starts for Westrock Stables.

The complete field for the Robert B. Lewis Stakes, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Isn’t He Clever, Corey Nakatani, 118; Liaison, Rafael Bejarano, 123; Groovin’ Solo, Victor Espinoza, 118; I’ll Have Another, Mario Gutierrez, 118; Sky Kingdom, Martin Garcia, 118; Rousing Sermon, Joseph Talamo, 118; Empire Way, Joel Rosario, 118, and Chips All In, Alonso Quinonez, 118.

The ease of his 3 ½-length victory in the Grade II, $150,000 San Fernando Stakes on Jan. 14 is bound to make Tapizar a prohibitive favorite among eight entrants in the 65th Strub, a race that has been won by such historic notables as Spectacular Bid, Affirmed, Round Table, Alysheba and Silver Charm.

A leading Triple Crown candidate last year before being sidelined by a knee chip in February, the strapping son of Tapit returned in October. Tapizar’s third race back in the San Fernando at 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.94 demonstrated that he was ready to meet the elite among older horses.

Said jockey Corey Nakatani following the wire-to-wire win, “He ran a tremendous race today. With his athletic ability, he’s such an amazing horse. He’s a really big and muscular horse. He’s huge. And when you get him in that high cruising speed, he just seems to do it so easy.”

“He was unfortunate to get hurt,” Asmussen said. “We were very pleased with his race in the San Fernando. Hopefully we won’t get off track with him this year.” Owned and bred by Winchell Thoroughbreds, Tapizar comes into the Strub with earnings of $263,032 from 4 wins in 9 starts.

He will have to contend with Ultimate Eagle, a son of Mizzen Mast who will be making his first start on dirt after posting upset victories on grass last year in the Grade II Oak Tree Derby at odds of 34-1 and in the Grade I Hollywood Derby at 14-1. Trained by Michael Pender for B. J. Wright, Ultimate Eagle is ridden by Martin Pedroza. The bay colt has won 4 of 8 starts while earning $347,800.

Baffert entered a pair of 4-year-olds for Zayat Stables, millionaire Prayer for Relief and comebacking Jaycito. Prayer for Relief, who last year captured the Grade III Iowa Derby, Grade II West Virginia Derby and Grade II Super Derby, finished third, 3 ½ lengths behind Tapizar in the San Fernando. Regular pilot Bejarano rides Prayer for Relief, whose 5-1-2 record in 11 starts has netted $1,033,225.

Jaycito has been on the shelf with reported foot and throat ailments since August of last year. An erratic son of Victory Gallop, Jaycito had shown signs of brilliance during his 2-year-old season. He won the Grade I Norfolk Stakes at Hollywood Park after rallying for second during a troubled run in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity.

Sent off at 5-1 odds in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs in 2010, Jaycito experienced a nightmare trip when steadying early before swerving out past the middle of the track entering the backstretch. After falling 15 lengths behind the ninth horse in a field of 10, he wound up seventh behind victorious Uncle Mo.

With Martin Garcia set to ride, Jaycito will be faced with a difficult assignment upon returning in an event like the Strub. With a single victory and three second-place finishes in his six-race career, the $110,000 sales purchase has earned $261,300.

The complete field for the Strub Stakes, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Jaycito, Garcia, 118; Prayer for Relief, Bejarano, 123; Beer Meister, Glenn Corbett, 118; Ultimate Eagle, Martin Pedroza, 123; Clubhouse Ride, Espinoza, 118; Indian Winter, Rosario, 118; Tapizar, Nakatani, 123, and Balladry, Talamo, 118.

Mr. Commons, a 4-year-old Artie Schiller colt trained by John Shirreffs for St. George Farm Racing, will be challenged by seven rivals in the 25th Arcadia Stakes. Mr. Commons connected at the same distance over the same course on Dec. 16 when taking the Grade II Sir Beaufort Stakes by 3 ½ lengths over Irish Art with Ultimate Eagle finishing third. He was the 11-10 favorite that day and could well be odds-on this time around even though he drew the trying outside post.

Mike Smith rides the bay colt who, prior to the Sir Beaufort, gave a good account of himself in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Churchill Downs when a troubled fifth behind Court Vision. He steadied going into the first turn, became rank, got carried out, but was only beaten 4 ½ lengths in the Grade I, $2 million event. His 4-2-1 record in 10 career starts has borne earnings of $473,660.

His most compelling opponent in the Arcadia appears to be newcomer Pathfork, who makes his first U.S. start for trainer John Sadler. The 4-year-old Kentucky-bred son of Distorted Humor was unbeaten in three starts as a 2-year-old in Ireland. After winning the Group II EBF Futurity Stakes, Pathfork returned to capture the Group I Vincent O’Brien National Stakes at the Curragh.

He raced only once last year when chasing the incomparable Frankel in the Group I 2000 Guineas Stakes at Newmarket in England. The colt, owned by Silverton Hills Farm, has been training sharply for his local debut with a steady string of works at six or seven furlongs, often on turf. Joel Rosario has taken the riding assignment.

The complete field for the Arcadia Stakes, with jockeys and weights in post position order: Dewey’s Special, Jose Valdivia Jr., 118; Pathfork, Rosario, 118; M One Rifle, Talamo, 118; Calimonco, Espinoza, 118; El Gato Malo, Garcia, 118; Willyconker, Bejarano, 118; Massone, Nakatani, 118, and Mr. Commons, Mike Smith, 123.

On a 10-race program that gets underway at 12:30 p.m., the Strub will go as the eighth race with the Lewis slotted as the sixth. The Arcadia will be contested as the third race.

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