March 17, 2012

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Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert continued his mastery of shipping and winning at Oaklawn as Watson, Pegram & Weitman’s SecretSecret Circle Circle and jockey Rafael Bejarano stalked their way to a ¾-length victory in the $500,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) in front of 31,882 fans.

Earlier, Tiz Miz Sue secured a long-sought Oaklawn victory in the ultra-tough older female division by comfortably rolling past She’s All In by three lengths in the $150,000 Azeri Stakes (G3). Joyful Victory, the 2011 Fantasy Stakes (G2) winner returning to Hot Springs, was third while 4-5 favorite Absinthe Minded faded to fourth.

It was the third consecutive win in the Rebel for Baffert and came a month after Secret Circle and Castaway gave his stable a sweep of the divided Southwest Stakes (G3).

Sent away the even-money favorite of the St. Patrick’s Day crowd, Secret Circle showed a new dimension by sitting in fourth-place early – farther behind than he’d ever been in his career. Scatman and Unbridled’s Note set the moderate pace with the former breaking free turning for home, but Bejarano angled the 3-year-old son of Eddington to the middle of the track and wore him down, then held off a furious close from Optimizer with a final time of 1:44.55 over a fast 1 1/16th miles.

“I’m glad they made the decision to bring him back here,” said Bejarano, who teamed with Baffert to sweep the Southwest last month. “The key was getting him to relax. He has lots of talent.”

Baffert and the winning owners started the run of three consecutive Rebels with Lookin At Lucky in 2010 en route to a win in the Preakness Stakes (G1) and an Eclipse championship as the top 3-year-old that year. Baffert trained The Factor to win the Rebel last year.

The late charge by Optimizer at 27-1 buoyed D. Wayne Lukas another Hall of Fame trainer with considerable Triple Crown experience.

“We are real proud,” he said as the Bluegrass Hall color-bearer bounced back from back-to-back disappointments in his sophomore starts this year. “They only get longer and tougher from here.”

Secret Circle is 5-for-6 on his career and pushed his Graded stakes earnings to $470,000 – more than enough to qualify for an oversubscribed Kentucky Derby seven weeks from now at Churchill Downs, the site of his win in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint last November.

Tiz Miz Sue has spent the last three winters competing with Horse of the Year caliber distaffers and had been in search of her turn in the winner’s circle here in eighth unsuccessful attemtps. The Cresran LLC runner stalked the moderate pace under Joe Rocco Jr. before powering by the front-runners in the stretch at 8-1 for trainer Steve Hobby.

“It was overdue for that girl,” said Hobby. “Joe was able to wait and wait. He is great with her, just so patient. He knows her real well.”

Hobby indicated Tiz Miz Sue would likely point to the $500,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) next month where she may face the defending champion Horse of the Year Havre de Grace, who returned for 2012 with an easy win in the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at Fair Grounds Saturday.

$500,000 Rebel Stakes (G2) - Quotes

Winning Jockey Rafael Bejarano, Secret Circle – “I’m glad they made the decision to bring him back here. It was the right decision. He was really ready today. The key was getting him to relax. He has lots of talent.”

Assistant trainer to Bob Baffert, Jim Barnes, Secret Circle – “It looks like he will (keep going). Bob will decide all that, but we did what we had to today. He got the mile-sixteenth and showed he could rate a bit. I’ll be getting my room for the Arkansas Derby tomorrow.”

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, second with Optimizer – “We are real proud. We didn’t get beat by much – only about a half-length. They only get longer and tougher from here. That’s the way it goes.”

Jon Court, second aboard Optimizer – “I had to come four wide in the final drive. Two more jumps and I think I would have gotten there. I won three races today and I think I would have traded them for this one. I’m not complaining because this horse is really nice.”

Trainer Mike Lauer, second with Scatman – “I’m disappointed. I thought we were right there at the eighth pole, but he just didn’t finish. I don’t know. He started relaxing a little bit in the stretch and Luis said he did the same thing in his last race. We hope that’s something we can work on.”

Jockey Luis Quinonez, third aboard Scatman – “My horse tried to pull up on me a little at the sixteenth pole. I was able to get him going again and he ran real smooth. He’s been running a mile and I think he was thinking about that. He finished smooth. There were several times I thought we were going to win it. He’s a really nice horse.”

Trainer Lynn Whiting, fifth with Cyber Secret – “He was just pulling Robby right out of the pad. We are going to have to go back and make an adjustment, maybe take off the blinkers or something. He was chasing from the three-quarter pole and he can’t win doing that.

Trainer Danny Peitz, sixth with Najjaar – “He was going backwards at the start. He made a nice run, but I wish he would have broke with the rest of them, so we’d know if he could have been closer. If  he comes out of this good, we’ll look at the Arkansas Derby.”

$150,000 Azeri Stakes (G3) - Quotes

Winning trainer Steve Hobby, Tiz Miz Sue – “It was overdue for that girl. I was confident the whole trip. I liked that she tucked in behind horses. They hooked up in front, they weren’t going crazy, but they were nodding back and forth and taking turns and that had me liking it the whole way. Joe (Rocco Jr.) was able to wait and wait. He is great with her…just so patient. He knows her real well. I guess the Apple Blossom. We will see what (Havre de Grace) does.”

Winning jockey Joe Rocco, Jr., aboard Tiz Miz Sue – “She gave me so much confidence. I just had so much horse. All I had to do was bide my time and she just exploded."

Winning Owner Ran Leonard (Owner, Cresran Stable), Tiz Miz Sue – “It’s a huge victory for her today. She is now a graded stakes winner, which is huge for a small breeding operation. This is a great victory for the whole family. The field we ran against today was a classy group. To get lucky and win is a huge accomplishment for us. I’m going to let Steve decide our next move with her. We will probably nominate to the Apple Blossom, but we will wait and see.”

Jockey Luis Quinonez, second aboard She’s All In – “My instructions were to put her right in the race. She broke sharp and ran hard. We had no problems. We just got out run. No excuses.”

Jockey Robby Albarado, third aboard Joyful Victory – “I was where I wanted to be behind a couple of speed horses early on. She gave me a little kick, but was no match for the winner today. No excuses for her today.”

Jockey Terry Thompson – “She’s been running those fractions so I was feeling pretty confident. When I called on her she just didn’t have the punch.”