Will Baffert Win Again in the Los Alamitos Futurity?

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

The Road to the Kentucky Derby continues on Saturday with the $300,000 Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I), a very productive 1 1/16-mile event at Los Alamitos that has been won over the last ten years by such high-class colts as Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) winner McKinzie, Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) winner Mor Spirit, Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Dortmund, Pacific Classic (gr. I) winner Shared Belief, Preakness Stakes (gr. I) winner Lookin at Lucky, and Kentucky Derby (gr. I) runner-up Pioneerof the Nile.

This year's renewal has attracted just six starters, but they're a very promising group and it wouldn't be a surprise to see a future star emerge from this field. Let's take a look at each horse in the field....

#1 Improbable:

Trainer Bob Baffert has won this race a record-setting ten times, including the last four editions here at Los Alamitos, and as "improbable" as might seem for any trainer to win a Grade 1 race five times in a row, I expect Baffert to achieve just that on Saturday with Improbable.

Improbable wasn't the flashiest of debut winners, rallying from fourth place in a small field to break his maiden by a neck sprinting six furlongs at Santa Anita, but with the benefit of hindsight, he beat a pretty good field that day and showed a lot of determination to prevail in a long battle down the homestretch while earning a solid 85 Beyer speed figure.

However, it was Improbable's second start that really caught the attention of handicappers nationwide. Shipping halfway across the country to contest the one-mile Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs, Improbable was favored at odds-on to defeat eight rivals, but after breaking slowly from post position two, Improbable found himself behind horses early on and he didn't seem completely comfortable while racing right up on their heels.

This might have been problematic for some horses, but Improbable—despite his apparent discomfort racing in tight quarters—responded perfectly to the cues of jockey Drayden Van Dyke. When an opening appeared in between horses, Improbable casually sliced through with smooth acceleration, then shifted to the outside and took aim at the two pacesetters. Again with something resembling nonchalance, Improbable swept past the leaders with complete authority, making a move more commonly seen from Olympic short track speed skaters than two-year-old Thoroughbreds.

Making Improbable's performance all the more impressive is that he made these two big moves into fast fractions of :22.27, :44.96, and 1:09.83—in other words, he was really moving and not just making a mild run into a slow pace. And suffice to say, once Improbable struck the front, the race was over, as he sustained his rally down the homestretch to pull away and win by 7 ¼ lengths, earning a 93 Beyer speed figure that stands out as by far the best in the Los Alamitos Futurity field.

Since the Street Sense Stakes, Improbable has posted four sharp workouts at Santa Anita, including a bullet five furlongs in :59 4/5 on December 3rd. I expect him to win the Los Alamitos Futurity with anything resembling a good trip... and judging from the Street Sense, he might not even need that!

#2 Savagery:

Savagery is the perfect example of a horse offering both pros and cons from a handicapping perspective. He's graded stakes-placed, but his lone win came in a maiden claimer. He's run around two turns, but only on turf. He's got plenty of speed, but has only been the early leader once in five starts and will be racing without blinkers for the first time on Saturday.

The biggest reason to like Savagery is that there's very little early speed on paper in the Los Alamitos Futurity, so Savagery figures to work out an ideal trip racing close to a modest pace. But he was beaten to the lead in the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) by Mucho Gusto and never could get on even terms after that, coming home in second place, and with the removal of blinkers on Saturday, I don't really envision him employing bolder tactics this time around. It seems more likely than not that he'll settle into a stalking position behind Mucho Gusto, and while that could potentially earn him a good share of the purse, it could also make it difficult for Savagery to turn the tables on his Bob Hope conqueror.

#3 Dueling:

Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, Dueling has shown flashes of talent during his brief career, finishing second behind the probable two-year-old champion Game Winner in a six-furlong maiden race at Del Mar before stretching out to a mile at Santa Anita and winning by a decisive 2 ¾ lengths. That effort led to a start in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) at Churchill Downs, where Dueling ran evenly to pretty much split the field and finish sixth.

It was a big ask to jump straight from a maiden win into the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, and under the circumstances, Dueling's respectable though unremarkable finish could be considered a step in the right direction. He'll be staying in Grade 1 company on Saturday, but this is obviously a much easier spot than the Breeders' Cup, and Dueling will be reunited with the Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who was aboard for Dueling's maiden score.

In terms of running style, Dueling has never been closer than fourth at the first call of a race, but against this small field, I wouldn't be surprised if Smith puts Dueling into the race a bit sooner, especially while racing with blinkers for just the second time. Overall, I get the feeling that Dueling might have a bigger engine under the hood than any of us realize—we've seen glimpses of his potential—and if he puts everything together in the Los Alamitos Futurity, I think we'll see him finish on the board.

#4 King of Speed:

The most experienced runner in the field with seven starts under his belt, King of Speed wasn't disgraced while finishing fourth in two dirt sprints early in the season, but he's shown significant improvement since stretching out in distance and switching to turf, winning the Del Mar Juvenile Turf Stakes and the Zuma Beach Stakes before finishing twelfth over a yielding turf course in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I).

As a son of Jimmy Creed out of an A.P. Indy mare, King of Speed is bred to handle dirt, so perhaps his improvement throughout the summer and fall had more to do with stretching out in distance than any special affinity for grass. But then again, he benefited from a terrific pace setup in the Zuma Beach Stakes, and he didn't run particularly fast in the Del Mar Juvenile Turf while defeating a field of somewhat questionable quality. As a one-dimensional deep closer, I think King of Speed could be compromised by the expected modest pace of the Los Alamitos Futurity, so for these reasons I'll play against him on Saturday.

#5 Extra Hope:

Generally speaking, trainer Richard Mandella isn't known for sending out ready-to-win first-time starters—according to DRF Formulator, Mandella has gone 0-for-23 over the last five years with two-year-old males making their debuts. That's why it was noteworthy when Extra Hope unleashed a big finish to fall just a half-length short of victory in his debut on August 4th at Del Mar, and since then Extra Hope has reiterated his talent while giving the impression that he still has room for improvement.

Extra Hope was actually beaten in two more starts following his debut, but gaining that experience seemed to do him good. When he added blinkers and stretched out to 1 1/16 miles in a maiden race at Santa Anita on October 21st, he responded with a big step forward, tracking a modest pace before powering clear to win by 8 ¾ lengths with a career-best 82 Beyer speed figure.

Extra Hope subsequently cut back to seven furlongs for the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III), and while that was surely less than ideal—Mandella had hoped to keep the colt running around two turns—Extra Hope ran well to finish an even fourth, beaten 2 ¼ lengths for victory and less than a length for second place. The return to 1 1/16 miles should help his chances, and he has shown enough tactical speed in his last two starts to suggest that he won't be too far off the pace on Saturday. As with Dueling, it's not hard to think that the best is still to come for Extra Hope, and considering the talent he's already displayed, that makes him a very intriguing prospect.

#6 Mucho Gusto:

In the event that Improbable should misfire, Baffert might still pick up a fifth straight Los Alamitos Futurity courtesy of Mucho Gusto, who—like Improbable—is unbeaten in two starts. Purchased for $625,000 back in May, this stoutly-bred son of Mucho Macho Man was an eye-catching debut winner at Los Alamitos on September 20th, when he set a fast pace and pulled away to win a six-furlong maiden race by four lengths. Two months later, he stepped up in class for the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III) at Santa Anita and again went straight to the lead, out-battling Savagery from start to finish to prevail by 1 ½ lengths with an 86 Beyer speed figure.

Although Mucho Gusto has never run farther than seven furlongs, his pedigree suggests that two turns won't be an issue, and in a field without much speed on paper, Mucho Gusto looms as the most likely pacesetter and might be able to secure a relatively uncontested lead. From there, it could be easier said than done to run him down, and while I do prefer the chances of Improbable, I think Mucho Gusto is clearly the most likely runner-up.


1st: Improbable
2nd: Mucho Gusto
3rd: Dueling
4th: Extra Hope

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Los Alamitos Futurity?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.

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