June 19, 2024

Heck Yeah! Favorite stays unbeaten in California Cup Derby

Cal Cup Derby hero Heck Yeah could now try the Kentucky Derby trail © BENOIT PHOTO

A winner on dirt and turf, on the pace or off, undefeated Heck Yeah added another skill to his portfolio in Monday’s $201,035 California Cup Derby – he can route too. The 4-5 favorite lived up to expectations for the Hall of Fame tandem of trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Mike Smith, wiring the 1 1/16-mile test for California-bred or -sired sophomores in his two-turn debut.

The same couldn’t be said of California Chrome’s full brother, Faversham. Stepping up off a second in his unveiling, the 8-1 shot never factored in a well-beaten eighth. But the runner who beat Faversham in that maiden, Violent Ridge, upheld the form by finishing easily best of the rest to Heck Yeah here.

Breaking alertly, Heck Yeah went forward and found Intimidate sneaking through on the rail as they passed the opening quarter in :23.03. That’s as close as anyone got. Heck Yeah glided clear swinging into the backstretch, carved out fractions of :47.01 and 1:12.52, and held a three-length lead in midstretch. He began to look a bit weary late as Violent Ridge stayed on doggedly to reduce the gap to 1 1/4 lengths. While the final time of 1:46.60 indicates how much they were slowing down, Smith described the track as feeling “heavy” and commented on a significant headwind up the backstretch.

Violent Ridge, the 6-1 second choice, was in turn 3 3/4 lengths ahead of late-running Continental Divide, third at 13-1. The 19-1 Fire When Ready rounded out the superfecta.

Heck Yeah has now bankrolled $194,000. The 5 1/4-length winner of his December 7 debut at Los Alamitos may have given backers a fright when he got off to a slow start in the January 27 Cal Cup Sprint on Santa Anita’s downhill course. But he adjusted on the fly and rallied from off the pace.

The first stakes winner for his sire, champion Acclamation (by Unusual Heat), Heck Yeah races for breeder Michael Pageler and partners Robert Baedeker and Dr. Michael Sigband. He is the second registered foal from the winning Maria’s Mon mare Lutess, and a distant maternal relative of multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Practical Joke.

Heck Yeah is nominated to the Triple Crown, and Pageler didn’t rule out a class test in open company on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail. Interestingly, Baffert said he’s more of a turf horse, and that would fit the profile of his sire, a multiple Grade 1 turf star and winner of the Pacific Classic (G1) in track-record time on the old Del Mar Polytrack.

Quotes from Santa Anita

Hall of Famer Mike Smith on Heck Yeah: “I was telling Bob that down the backstretch I felt like I was in the Olympics (with this headwind.) I was trying to be as aerodynamic as possible. It was really strong and it took its toll on all of them in there. We had enough to hold them off though.

“The heavy track and the headwind were bothering him and I just tried to stay out of his way. I wanted him to stay in that nice rhythm and we were able to hold them off down the lane.”

Winning trainer Bob Baffert: “I know this is the first Derby of the year that I’ve won. I’m really proud of this horse. Naturally, I think he’s a better turf horse but he gutted it out today. He showed his class when he broke his maiden over the dirt at Los Al. He’s quick, he’s got stamina, he’s gutsy and he has a lot of heart. You should bet him!

“He was very professional. The good horses show their stuff early. We saw that he was a nice horse early in his training. I’m just glad to be a part of it. We’ve got a good group (of owners) here.”

Breeder and co-owner Mike Pageler: “This is great, more than I expected, really. This colt is the second foal out of the mare (Lutess). We’ve got a 2-year-old colt by Coil and she’s in Kentucky now to be bred to Arrogate.

“It’s up to Bob, but I wouldn’t be opposed to taking a shot at one of those (Kentucky Derby) points races.”

Jockey Geovanni Franco on runner-up Violent Ridge: “He settled real nice with me and he was very kind down the backside. I like the way he finished and he’s going to get better. The winner is a nice horse.”

While the favorite justified his odds-on status in the Cal Cup Derby, a similar hotpot was overturned in the companion $196,000 California Cup Oaks on turf as Pulpit Rider blew by the 3-5 One Fast Broad.

The 5-2 second choice was gaining revenge, having finished unplaced behind One Fast Broad in last fall’s Golden State Juvenile Fillies and Soviet Problem. Those were on the dirt, however. Pulpit Rider signaled a renewed interest in the game in her turf debut last out, a rallying third in a sprint on Santa Anita’s downhill course. Now stretching out again for new rider Corey Nakatani, the Mr. and Mrs. Larry Williams homebred was a different proposition in a last-to-first victory.

Pulpit Rider looks a promising turf prospect after capturing the Cal Cup Oaks

A contentious pace unfolded, with Mo See Cal forcing longshot Felony One through splits of :22.65 and :46.51 until taking over by the six-furlong mark in 1:11.37. Mo See Cal began to edge clear in upper stretch, but One Fast Broad and Pulpit Rider were winding up. Outkicking the favorite inside the final furlong, Pulpit Rider opened up by 2 1/2 lengths while completing the grassy mile in 1:35.80. One Fast Broad held second, a half-length to the good of X S Gold, who caught Mo See Cal for third.

Pulpit Rider’s resume now reads 7-3-0-1, $194,536, compiled mostly in state-restricted company (with the exception of her recent third down the hill). The Mike Puype trainee was emphatic in her two early scores, a Del Mar maiden and an entry-level Santa Anita allowance, before failing to progress in dirt stakes.

By California Chrome’s sire, Lucky Pulpit, Pulpit Rider was produced by the multiple stakes-winning, $603,041-earner Lady Railrider. The mare, a daughter of Ride the Rails, is herself a Williams homebred.

Quotes from Santa Anita

Trainer Mike Puype on Pulpit Rider: “Yeah, Corey (Nakatani) sure waited today, he did good. Big turn of foot out of her today, wow. She’s more than a Cal-bred. She’s just getting there mentally. And the turf was excellent. She ran well (over the turf) in her last so we wanted to give her a try in here.”

Winning rider Corey Nakatani: “This is such a testament to Mike. He asked me about this filly and if I’d like to ride her so I said ‘sure, I think I’d be a great asset to your team. I’ll go out there and give it my all.’

“He said she’s doing better than ever over the grass and that her family loves the grass. I love winning races and this is just such a tribute to Mike and his team. He really knows how to settle them down and get their mind right. I was just trying to be a quiet passenger on her back.”

Jockey Flavien Prat on One Fast Broad, second as the 3-5 favorite: “We had to go wide there turning for home and as we straightened up, she slipped a little, but we got beat a couple lengths, so I don’t know if that cost us.”