Playing for an Upset in the Bob Hope

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

If you wish to take a by-the-numbers approach to handicapping Sunday's $100,000 Bob Hope S. (G3) at Del Mar, a basic conclusion can quickly be drawn: trainer Bob Baffert is almost certain to win.

After all, Baffert has won the Bob Hope 10 times since 1996, including four times since 2015. Furthermore, Baffert conditions three of the five juveniles entered in this year's edition of the seven-furlong sprint.

But is Baffert inevitably guaranteed to win the Bob Hope? Not necessarily—after all, there are no certainties in racing. Let's go through the field in horse-by-horse fashion and see if we can identify a live upset candidate:

#1 Messier: The first of the Baffert trainees was favored at 1-2 to win his debut at Los Alamitos during the summer, but he didn't get off to the quickest start and could only rally late to finish second. However, the stoutly bred son of Empire Maker took a big step forward in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Santa Anita last month. Returning from a four-month layoff, Messier tracked a quick early pace before seizing command to win by 6 1/2 lengths with a 91 Brisnet Speed rating.

Produced by a stakes-winning Smart Strike mare, Messier will be ridden on Sunday by Flavien Prat (a 45% winner when teaming up with Baffert) and might be the best of the Baffert trio while dropping blinkers for his stakes debut. There's a lot of long-term potential here.

#2 Kamui: After crossing the wire second in his debut at Del Mar (he was ultimately disqualified to third for causing interference), Baffert's Kamui delivered an improved performance at Los Alamitos, surviving a pace duel to win a 5 1/2-furlong maiden special weight by six lengths. He hasn't run in two months, but enters the Bob Hope off a sharp series of workouts, including a bullet five furlongs in :58 3/5 at Santa Anita two weeks ago.

But Kamui was beaten in his debut by Forbidden Kingdom, who is back in the Bob Hope field, and the 87 Brisnet Speed rating Kamui posted in his maiden win looks a little light compared to some of his Sunday rivals. Messier may have a stronger win chance.

#3 Winning Map: The third and final Baffert trainee is the only undefeated entrant in the Bob Hope field, having crushed his Oct. 3 debut at Santa Anita by 4 1/4 lengths. The son of Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Liam's Map led all the way to post a 95 Brisnet Speed rating, the highest figure in Sunday's race.

Winning Map will be guided in the Bob Hope by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who recently teamed up with Baffert to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) aboard Corniche. It's hard to knock the chances of this $525,000 auction acquisition, though Messier—with his improving profile and classics-oriented pedigree—might have more upside.

#4 Rock N Rye: A veteran of five starts, Rock N Rye has competed exclusively against Califonia-bred company, winning the Graduation S. before placing in the I'm Smokin S. and Royal Owl S. The son of Stay Thirsty is versatile in terms of running style, but his career-best 86 Brisnet Speed rating is lower than those of his Sunday rivals, suggesting he'll need improvement to challenge for a top-three finish in the Bob Hope.

#5 Forbidden Kingdom: If anyone can upset the Baffert trio, it's probably Forbidden Kingdom. A son of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, Forbidden Kingdom displayed unwavering tenacity in his debut sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar. After sprinting to the lead through quick fractions of :21.92 and :45.51, Forbidden Kingdom dug deep to turn back multiple challenges and beat Kamui by half a length.

Forbidden Kingdom subsequently switched to turf for the five-furlong Speakeasy S. at Santa Anita, where he broke slowly before advancing to duel for command through a blazing :21.01 opening quarter. Nevertheless, Forbidden Kingdom stayed on gamely to finish third, beaten only 3 1/4 lengths by multiple stakes winner One Timer.

I'm optimistic Forbidden Kingdom will bounce back with a competitive effort while returning to dirt in the Bob Hope. He enters off a pair of sharp workouts at Del Mar, including five furlongs in :59 3/5, and jockey Juan Hernandez has gone 2-for-4 (50%) teaming up with Richard Mandella over the last two months. Drawing an outside post affords Forbidden Kingdom options for working out an ideal trip, so if he improves at all off the 90 Brisnet Speed rating he posted on debut, an upset victory can be within reach.


1st: Forbidden Kingdom
2nd: Messier
3rd: Winning Map

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


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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