Several Southern California-based trainers are happy they set up divisions at
Oaklawn in 2020, and Sunday’s ninth race at Oaklawn is a good example of the
influence these California trainers are having on the program.
Two entrants, Ginobili and Rager, have traveled roughly 1,600 miles for an entry-level sprint that will be over in roughly 70 seconds. In a perfect world, Ginobili and Rager could be running against others in their backyard, Santa Anita.
“It’s crazy,” Rager’s trainer, Andrew Lerner, said Friday afternoon. “The hard part is, if you don’t run them, the owners, understandably, they don’t want to be paying day rate at the track. It’s expensive, and I get that. But if you put them on a farm for two months, then you’ve got to bring them back and they’re not as fit. You’ve got to kind of back track and you take a few steps back. It’s a weird position to be in for everybody.”
Faced with that weird position, Lerner said he vanned Rager, stakes-placed on turf, to Oaklawn a little over a week ago. Trainer Richard Baltas, already with a small string at Oaklawn, now has seven horses on the grounds after Ginobili was flown to Arkansas Friday.
Baltas is among seven Southern California-based trainers with divisions this year at Oaklawn, the others being Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Doug O’Neill, John Sadler, Phil D’Amato, Peter Miller and Peter Eurton.
“We were lucky that we had horses stabled there and a barn set up,” Baltas said Thursday afternoon. “We’re happy and pleased that we came to Oaklawn.”
Baltas will have the 5-2 program favorite in Ginobili, who exits a runner-up finish in the $200,000 San Vicente Stakes (G2) Feb. 9 at Santa Anita. Nadal, a three-quarter length winner of the 7-furlong race, returned to capture the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) March 14 and remain unbeaten in three lifetime starts for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. The Rebel is traditionally Oaklawn’s final prep for the $750,000 Arkansas Derby (G2) May 2.
“He should be salty in there,” Baltas said. “I don’t know how the race came up, but I know my horse is pretty good.”
Rager (15-1) will be adding blinkers for his return to dirt. The Into Mischief colt ran second in the $75,000 Baffle Stakes Feb. 7 at Santa Anita and, in his last start, eighth in the $100,000 Pasadena Stakes at a mile Feb. 29 at Santa Anita. Rager, in his only dirt race, was last of four in the $100,000 Bob Hope Stakes (G3) Nov. 16 at Del Mar.
“This horse is a turf sprinter, I think,” Lerner said. “But he’s really not had a chance, an opportunity, to sprint on dirt. I think he’s a sprinter and after he broke his maiden first time out on turf, we put him in the Bob Hope, but those were some tough horses and it was a tough task. He’s really kind of had a lot of tough races and we’ve figured out that he’s just a sprinter. But I still think he can run on the dirt. I think he’s better on the turf, but this is our only opportunity, only race, I guess.”
Rager is co-owned by NHL player Erik Johnson. Lerner – with his first career Oaklawn starter – and Johnson teamed to win a March 8 claiming race with Canadian Game.
Lerner said he trains about 40 horses and hopes to send more to Oaklawn before its scheduled closing, May 2, adding he might have a much greater presence in 2021.
“You see more trainers going there and having strings there – Phil and Doug and different guys, and obviously, Jerry’s been there,” Lerner said. “I think next year you’ll see even more guys over there. They’re going to split their strings up from California. (Oaklawn) has good purses over there, good races. You’ve got great jockeys, a lot of SoCal jockeys that went over there. I’m strongly considering having a string of 15 or 20 over there next year.”
Post time for Sunday’s ninth race is 6:09 p.m. ET.