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Liaison, Rousing Sermon Meet Again in Lewis

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.


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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.



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