Baffert's Hoppertunity wins Clark Handicap at Churchill

LOUISVILLE — Dwelling on the might-have-beens never got anyone anywhere fast in Thoroughbred racing. It's a lesson owner Mike Pegram was schooled on many moons ago and one trainer Bob Baffert has to remember in order to maintain his sanity.

Still, as Hoppertunity — the Baffert trainee co-owned by Pegram — came to Grade I winner Constitution in the lane and battled his way to the front in Friday's Grade I, $551,000 Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, it was a challenge for all who witnessed the colt's performance not to ponder what an outing under the Twin Spires would have looked like for him six months ago.

"You never look back in this business," Pegram said in the aftermath. "If you look back in this business, you're ready to retire."

Hoppertunity's chance at a run in the Kentucky Derby was thwarted last May when he was scratched two days before the race because of a quarter-crack problem. Under perfect stalk-and-pounce handling from jockey Martin Garcia, the son of Any Given Saturday scored his first Grade I win over the Louisville track and signaled his presence in the 2015 handicap division when he defeated fellow 3-year-old Protonico by half a length in the Clark.

Blessed with an even-paced, lengthy stride and the handiness to rate just about anywhere, Hoppertunity had a classic look about him this spring coming off a victory in the Grade II Rebel Stakes in March and runner-up finish to eventual dual classic winner California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.

In his second start back since being sidelined, the bay colt was professional as ever as he sat just off Constitution through fractions of :24.30 and :49.04 en route to his third win in seven career starts.

"After missing the Derby and still being able to come back here and win, it means something special," Pegram said. "He was ready and he showed it today. The race he ran in the Rebel was unbelievable, he was always a fighter. The Santa Anita Derby was a stroll around the park where we were waiting for a bigger thing that never happened.

"This time, he was able to strut his stuff. We hope he has a good 4-year-old year ahead of him."

A half-brother to fellow Grade I winner Executiveprivilege, Hoppertunity had an ankle chip taken out as well when he was sidelined with his foot problems last spring and returned to run a fast-closing second in a 7-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita Park on Oct. 29.

Garcia, who had not been aboard Hoppertunity since his fourth-place outing in the Grade II Risen Star last February, put the colt much closer to front in the early going in Friday's Clark and kept his mount relaxed even as Easter Gift ranged up to his flank midway down the backside.

"I think the (allowance race) was short for him, but I knew today would be a really good race for him," Garcia said.

Under right-handed urging from Garcia in the stretch, 2-1 favorite Hoppertunity overtook Constitution — who himself was making his second start back after missing the Derby due to injury — trying to last along the rail and turned back a late charge from Protonico to hit the wire in 1:49.88 for the 11⁄8 miles over his eight rivals.

Constitution, the only Grade I winner in the field going into the race, ended up third giving the trio of sophomore runners in the Clark a sweep of the top three spots.

"Constitution was maybe a tad headstrong and Churchill is not always the most speed-conducive track," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who also conditions Protonico. "But I thought he showed some guts when those horses came to him and he kept trying."

Baffert's three wins in the Kentucky Derby are juxtaposed against some gut-turning beats his horses have had at Churchill, including multiple Grade I-winning gelding Game On Dude falling a head short of champion Will Take Charge in last year's Clark.

The Hall of Fame trainer already has 3-year-old Bayern, winner of this year's Breeders' Cup Classic, sitting on go for 2015. With Hoppertunity materializing with the top-level form expected of him, Baffert is looking ahead to some divisional dominance once the calendar turns.

"All I know is that stretch (at Churchill) has been a killer for me but that horse was bred to run a 11⁄8, 11/4 miles," said Baffert when reached via cell phone. "We've got him, we've got Bayern. I'm just glad they're in my barn, I don't have to run against Bayern and Hoppertunity."