Looking for a Longshot in the Bob Hope Stakes

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

When a handful of lightly-raced juveniles head to the Del Mar starting gate for Saturday's $100,00 Bob Hope Stakes (G3) at Del Mar, racing fans and handicappers will widely expect trainer Bob Baffert to saddle the winner.

The Hall of Fame conditioner has won the seven-furlong sprint on nine occasions, including three times since 2015 and five times since 2011. When entries were drawn on Wednesday, Baffert entered two colts in search of his tenth Bob Hope victory: #3 Thousand Words and #5 High Velocity, with the former looming as the favorite.

However, the Daily Racing Form has reported that Thousand Words will scratch from the Bob Hope to await other targets, leaving High Velocity as Baffert's lone representative. This could lead to a potentially lucrative wagering opportunity, because High Velocity—though promising—might not be the best horse in the Bob Hope field.

Purchased for $350,000 as a yearling, High Velocity debuted in a 5 ½-furlong maiden sprint on October 13 at Santa Anita. After breaking quickly from the starting gate, the son of Quality Road tracked fractions of :22.27 and :45.76, took the lead in the final furlong, and pulled away late to defeat pace-setting Prince Magician by 2 ¼ lengths.

It was a solid debut, but High Velocity and Prince Magician were the only colts to do much running in the five-horse field. High Velocity's winning time of 1:04.60 translated to a modest 81 Beyer speed figure, and it's worth noting he was guided to victory by apprentice jockey J.C. Diaz, Jr., meaning High Velocity carried seven pounds less than his rivals.

On Saturday, High Velocity will stretch out in distance while facing a couple of speedy rivals in #2 Howbeit and #6 Strongconstitution, both hailing from the barn of Doug O'Neill. Howbeit has won two straight, including a six-furlong allowance race at Santa Anita, but Strongconstitution is likely the greater threat.

A debut winner sprinting five furlongs on grass at Del Mar, Strongconstitution ran a big race in the 6 ½-furlong Sunny Slope Stakes at Santa Anita last month, battling along the inside to finish just a neck behind his stakes-winning stablemate Fore Left. Strongconstitution's effort produced an 82 Beyer, so he's already fast enough to compete with High Velocity.

But reaching the 80 Beyer threshold isn't an imposing task for promising juveniles, which suggests it wouldn't take much for a longshot to step up and vie for victory in the Bob Hope. And in my opinion, #1 Rager might be poised to take just such a leap forward.

Conditioned by Andrew Lerner, an up-and-coming California conditioner winning at a 25% rate this season, Rager is a well-bred son of leading sire Into Mischief out of a Distorted Humor mare. The colt debuted in a 5 ½-furlong turf sprint on October 20 at Santa Anita, where bettors disregarded him at odds of 19-1.

But despite running an unusual race, Rager displayed a lot of talent and potential. He seemed a bit uncomfortable racing inside runners at various points in the race; possibly the footing wasn't his favorite. He dropped back suddenly on the far turn and appeared to be on his way to an unplaced finish, but jockey Martin Garcia persevered in the stretch, pointing Rager to the rail when a large opening appeared.

As soon as Garcia went to the whip, Rager found a new gear and suddenly burst clear of his rivals. His margin of victory was just three-quarters of a length, but Rager gained 3 ½ lengths in the final furlong and was merely hand-ridden late in the race. He was much more dominant than his bare margin of victory implies.

For the Bob Hope, Rager will switch to the main track at Del Mar, an appealing shift since his breeding suggests he'll be best on dirt. Just as significantly, Lerner wins at a 35% rate with runners transitioning from turf to dirt.

All signs suggest Rager is sitting on an improved performance this Saturday, making him an appealing alternative to the favorites. He's 12-1 on the morning line, and while his odds figure to drop with the scratch of Thousand Words, if you can get 6-1 on this promising colt, I'd jump at the opportunity.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Bob Hope Stakes?


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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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