While Kentucky Derby (G1) morning-line favorite Omaha Beach had to miss his intended comeback in Sunday’s $98,000 Shared Belief Stakes because of a virus, the Del Mar feature marked the successful return of his high-profile rival Improbable. The beaten post-time favorite in the Derby and Preakness (G1) benefited from a freshening, class relief, and a cutback in distance to earn his first win of the year.
The Bob Baffert trainee was highly rated on many Derby lists after an unbeaten juvenile campaign including dominant scores in the Street Sense on the Breeders’ Cup Friday undercard and the Los Alamitos Futurity (G1). Improbable then suffered two narrow defeats on the trail at Oaklawn Park. Just nailed late in the first division of the Rebel (G2), he added blinkers for the Arkansas Derby (G1), but the equipment change proved unhelpful and he settled for second to Omaha Beach.
The blinkers came off at Churchill Downs, where Improbable inherited lukewarm Derby favoritism after the scratch of Omaha Beach. His fifth across the wire (promoted to fourth via the disqualification of Maximum Security) was useful enough to suggest he’d loom large in a Preakness lacking the top four, but he underperformed again when sixth at Pimlico.
Improbable put the blinkers back on for the Shared Belief and also reunited with Drayden Van Dyke, his regular rider last season who hadn’t been aboard since his Rebel loss. Reverting to a flat mile promised to suit, and facing just three overmatched rivals turned it into a confidence booster.
In another change-up, Improbable made more use of his early speed than he had of late. The 3-5 favorite broke well and took up a pace-pressing posture, breathing down the neck of Lieutenant Dan through splits of :23.17 and :46.63. Improbable took over through six furlongs in 1:10.75 and set sail for home.
His closest market rival, even-money King Jack, had gotten away smartly, but Hall of Fame rider Mike Smith eased the inexperienced colt back and switched him around into a stalking third. Advancing as Lieutenant Dan was a spent force, King Jack gave game chase for the length of the stretch and finished a hard-trying second, 2 3/4 lengths astern of the winner.
Lieutenant Dan, who had been cross-entered to Saturday’s Pat O’Brien (G2) won by highly regarded older male Catalina Cruiser, faded to a distant third. Street Class, always at the rear, was eased. The short field was reduced to four by the scratches of Stubbins and Seven Scents.
Improbable wasn’t as visually impressive as he had been at two, and his final quarter on the clock – :26.78 to finish the mile in 1:37.53 – was hardly inspiring. Baffert noted afterward that he wasn’t fully fit. It’s plausible that he can move forward from this tightener, but he’ll have to improve to entertain ideas of the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1):
The Shared Belief has had an impact on the Dirt Mile in recent years. Ill-fated Battle of Midway romped here ahead of springing his Breeders’ Cup upset in 2017. Accelerate scored his first stakes win in the 2016 Shared Belief en route to a rallying third in the Dirt Mile, and he matured into the champion older male and Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) hero of 2018.
Campaigned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and Starlight Racing, Improbable sports a mark of 8-4-2-0, $829,520. The City Zip colt sold twice at auction, fetching $110,000 as a Keeneland November weanling and $200,000 as a yearling at Keeneland September.
Improbable was bred in Kentucky by St George Farm and G. Watts Humphrey Jr. Out of the winning A.P. Indy mare Rare Event, the chestnut descends from the family of noted sire Hard Spun as well as dual classic-winning champions Little Current and Chateaugay.
Quotes from Del Mar
Winning trainer Bob Baffert: “I put the blinker back on him and told Drayden to send him. He got a little tough on the first turn, but I think that’s how he wants to run. Just let him go. I was really happy with it. It took him a little while to come back and get used to this track. I still thought, even after his last work, that he wasn’t quite ready. But his class carried him. ”
Winning rider Drayden Van Dyke: “We were wanting to get him to break good and get position and he did that. He was a little more aggressive today; Bob told me he put a bigger blinker on him today and he might be that way. I was working with him on the backside; it’s give and take (rating a horse that wants to go). But he got to where he needed to be, then put in a very nice finish. He’s a nice horse.”
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith on runner-up King Jack: “A good try for my horse. I couldn’t pass him (Improbable). I tried, but….”