SHAM STAKES| PURSE: $100,000 | 3-YEAR-OLDS | GRADE 3 | ONE MILE
The $100,000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Jan. 11 was a two-horse race all the way down to the final sixteenth of a mile, and considering the fact that only four runners started, that was not a surprise.
Bettors had it figured right for the first major 3-year-old contest of the season in Southern California after the scratches of speedsters Top Fortitude and Life Is a Joy. Midnight Hawk — favored at 2-5 off a first-out maiden win for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert — and 2-1 second choice Kristo, the most experienced in the field with three previous outings under his girth, battled throughout the one-mile event worth 10 points on the road to the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands.
Midnight Hawk, a 3-year-old son of Hill 'n' Dale Farms stallion Midnight Lute , prevailed with a good outside run coming down off the turn, putting away his rival by 1 ¾ lengths to remain undefeated. The colt is owned by a partnership group that includes John Sikura's Hill 'n' Dale Equine Holdings, Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice, and Stanley Cup Champion Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville, along with Mike Kitchen and Mike Pegram.
"It's pretty exciting; it's nice to be a part of a winner," Tice said. "Any time you win it's exciting, in anything: tiddlywinks, horse racing, or football." Kristo was the early leader when hustled out of the gate by jockey Rafael Bejarano, and showed the way inside from Post 1 through a quarter in :23.31. But Midnight Hawk was shifted over to the two path from Post 6 by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, and ranged up quickly to attend that pace. He put a head in front for a half in :46.33, and was challenged by Kristo again for three-quarters in 1:10.50.
"It kind of turned into a match race today," Smith said. "Today, more so than winning, I wanted to find out if he could go long. If you can't go long, there's no use worrying about anything else. He proved he could go long."
Racing without blinkers for the first time, Midnight Hawk inched ahead outside for seven-eighths in 1:23.06, drifting in but finishing clear in a final time of 1:36.48 on the fast track. Ontology and I'll Wrap It Up completed the order of finish. Midnight Hawk paid $2.80 and $2.10 to win while Kristo brought $2.20 to place. There was no wagering to show.
"He's still a little green, but I liked him a lot better without the blinkers," Baffert said. "He was waiting a little bit on horses but he came back, he didn't look like he was very tired. He wasn't blowing very hard, so that's a good sign.
"He was showing up in the mornings, but you don't know until you do it. You hate to get everybody puffed up, but the way he worked his last couple times, it was like, he was pretty impressive."
Midnight Hawk, a gray or roan colt, was bred in Kentucky by Mike Pegram out of the Wolf Power mare Miss Wineshine, the 1999 Texas champion 2-year-old filly, and is now two-for-two with earnings of $87,000. He broke his maiden by 6 ¼ lengths on Dec. 13 going 7 ½ furlongs on the all weather track at Betfair Hollywood Park.
Smith said there was still work to be done on the inexperienced runner, who was a bit fractious in the gate before his debut.
"He was much better in the gate today; it was evident the work they have done, he's improved," Smith reported. "There is some other work to be done, though. He's still a bit green down the lane. When the crowd screams he over-exaggerates [when he changed paths to the rail late in the stretch]. He thinks they're yelling right at him and gets scared. There are some things that Bob can do that should help that as well though maybe some cotton in the ears, we'll see.
"It's great to see a colt this talented with room to grow. That's what you want to have...There's room to grow here and that's really something to look forward to. For such a big, heavy horse, he just floats over the ground."
Baffert did not define a target for Midnight Hawk; the next race in the Southern California 3-year-old prep series is the Feb. 8 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.
"We'll let him tell us when he's ready to roll," Baffert said. "He's a big, heavy horse, and he can handle a lot. He's so heavy, I'd rather run him than work him So far, so good, but we'll just take baby steps as we go and just have fun with him."
The connections of Kristo, a son of Distorted Humor who races for Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler, remained high on their contender following his runner-up effort.
"We think he can get better; we think he wants to run farther," Sadler said. "That's not the style we wanted to run today, but when it came up sort of like a match race, you're drawn inside of the other guy, what are you going to do? We had to run head to head all the way around, but he ran well."
"My horse broke real easy to the lead," said Bejarano. "I thought Midnight Hawk was going to cross in front of me, but he never did, so I went to the lead. But the winner was much too fast. He lost ground on both turns and still beat me. He's a nice horse, a really good horse. [But Kristo] finished a really good second. He tried hard to the end."
Trainer Kory Owens said he scratched Top Fortitude, a solid winner first out on Nov. 16 at Hollywood Park, due to a readjustment required on a back shoe the morning of the race that didn't resolve itself by noon.
"It looked like we were going backwards and we didn't want it to get worse," Owens said.