California's future Triple Crown trail aspirants audition Saturday in the 7-furlong Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar. Bob Baffert has won this race 2 of the last 3 years and 4 of the last 7, so it's no surprise that Mr. Triple Crown has a lead actor in this year's Bob Hope. And as late as Justify burst onto the scene this year, we'll consider Baffert's prospect in this spot - MUCHO GUSTO - to be an early riser even if post-Breeders' Cup. Oh yeah, he won that, too, with Game Winner. Note: Baffert trainee METROPOL will scratch due to spiking a fever.
Stakes resumes can be fool's gold when judging 2-year-olds on class, but we do have the 1-2 finishers from the Sunny Slope Stakes, SPARKY VILLE and SAVAGERY, as well as the 2-4 finishers in the Grade 2 Best Pal, the aforementioned SPARKY VILLE as well as OWNING. But it's the Baffert debut winner MUCHO GUSTO who will garner instant respect with the public.
MUCHO GUSTO appears fastest of all early and SAVAGERY should be pushing him with some earnest. But there's not a ton of early zip in this one glaring on paper, so expect SPARKY VILLE to be forwardly placed in a good spot. Seven furlongs can be a hurdle of a trip for 2-year-olds, so if you can make a case for a closer, don't shy away.
The most impressive visual take among this field was the final furlong of MUCHO GUSTO in his debut at Los Alamitos. After dueling early (his sparring partner wound up 6th of 7), MUCHO GUSTO made that visual re-break you love to see in mid-stretch and powered home. His closest pursuer at Los Al came back here for Peter Eurton to win a Santa Anita MSW next out. This son of Mucho Macho Man is from a female family that screams classic distances, not sprints, including names like Peaks and Valleys and Alternation from the Pin Oak Farm. That he's this fast this soon is pure Baffert influence. Expect him to get better with time and distance, and be a bear to finish off Saturday.
SPARKY VILLE has already bagged more than $125,000 and is the only stakes winner in the field. Trainer Jeff Bonde told Millie Ball of XBTV that the son of Candy Ride had to be gelded prior to the Sunny Slope Stakes because of his pre-race antics and studdish behavior. The move proved immediately successful and there's no reason to think he won't fire his shot again. It's just a matter if some of the newbies to the stakes scene are more brilliant.
OWNING did not advance much from his debut win to the Grade 2 Best Pal when a well-beaten fourth. Trainer Simon Callaghan tried a turf mile last out and now removes blinkers and goes back to dirt sprinting. This seems a bit out of place and OWNING was out-worked badly on video Oct. 30 by an 0-4 maiden. I haven't seen the drills since then, but that one won't cut it.
SAVAGERY and SUENO were maiden claiming graduates, though the former ran a solid second in the Sunny Slope behind SPARKY VILLE. With Peter Miller and Keith Desormeaux the respected trainers of these, you can't confidently dismiss them. But, I do prefer others.
Most Certain Exotics Contender: MUCHO GUSTO looks like the next-horse-up in Baffert's machinery.
Best Longshot Exotics Contender: EXTRA HOPE busted out when adding blinkers last time in his fourth start. While he did have a perfect trip pressing a lone target in a short field, you have to respect his company lines that include quality freshmen like Sigalert and Dueling. He will be left without speed vs. these and try to make a late run for a share, needing a hot pace to unravel.
Sending it in ($100 bankroll): $75 exacta MUCHO GUSTO over SPARKY VILLE, $25 exacta MUCHO GUSTO over EXTRA HOPE.