Three-year-old Thoroughbreds can progress rapidly at this time of winter, as Messier demonstrated with a resounding victory in the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis S. (G3) on Sunday at Santa Anita.
Messier was accomplished as a juvenile, winning the Bob Hope S. (G3) and finishing second in the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2). But as a son of Belmont S. (G1) winner Empire Maker out of the Smart Strike mare Checkered Past, Messier is bred top and bottom to improve with maturity, and he looked like a completely different horse when kicking off his sophomore campaign in the Robert B. Lewis.
Favored at 3-5 while facing four rivals, Messier was quick into stride even while dropping the blinkers he wore in the Los Alamitos Futurity. Under Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, the Bob Baffert trainee carved out solid fractions of :23.24, :46.94, and 1:11.32 while closely pursued by Sir London and Cabo Spirit. Messier’s stablemate Wharton was content to settle in fourth place, with Happy Jack bringing up the rear.
But as the field approached the homestretch, Messier bid his rivals farewell, powering clear under a hand ride from Velazquez. In front by eight lengths in midstretch, Messier nearly doubled his advantage through the final furlong, striking the finish line clear by 15 lengths in the rapid time of 1:42.89 for 1 1/16 miles.
Cabo Spirit finished second by seven lengths over Wharton, followed by Sir London and Happy Jack in a strung-out field.
Setting the pace marked a change in tactics for Messier, who had previously utilized stalking and rallying tactics. Velazquez explained to Santa Anita that the change was intentional and driven by the post position draw, which saw Messier land the rail.
“The strategy worked. I don’t think the blinkers would have hurt him or made a difference. It was just the way the race set up,” said Velazquez. “I’m in post 1 and I don’t want to give the lead to them in front of me, then they slow down in front of my face and I can’t get out of there, so I asked Bob, ‘Bob, I’m going to come out running just to the first turn, I’m not going to chase them but I’m going to let him get his legs underneath of him. If they want to go faster, they can go faster and I don’t have to be on his mouth.’
“He said, ‘No, do whatever you need to do.’ Then he asked me what the horse needed to do and I just told him, ‘I told him to go!’. It was a strategy that worked. The horse is doing really great, he gave me the open hands to do what I needed to do and he showed up.”
Bred in Ontario by Sam-Son Farm, Messier races for the partnership of SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables, Robert E. Masterson, Jay A. Schoenfarber, Waves Edge Capital, Catherine M. Donovan, Golconda Stable, and Siena Farm. Purchased for $470,000 as a yearling, Messier is rapidly earning back his purchase price; winning on Sunday pushed his career tally to $285,600.
The Robert B. Lewis serves as a stop on the Road to the Kentucky Derby (awarding points on a 10-4-2-1 basis to the top four finishers), but since Baffert is suspended by Churchill Downs Inc., Messier and Wharton were ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualification points. As a result, only Cabo Spirit (four points) and Sir London (one point) accumulated points in the Lewis.
The next stop on Santa Anita’s Road to the Kentucky Derby is the Mar. 5 San Felipe S. (G2), worth 50-20-10-5 points. The series concludes with the April 9 Santa Anita Derby (G1), which doubles the stakes to 100-40-20-10 points.