Will a Recent Maiden Winner Take the Bob Hope?

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

More often than not, the $100,000 Bob Hope S. (G3) at Del Mar is a straightforward race to handicap. Because more often than not, the seven-furlong dirt dash for juveniles is won by a short-priced Bob Baffert trainee.

Let's crunch some numbers. Since 1996, Baffert has won the Bob Hope a dozen times, including eight editions since 2011. Baffert often saddles multiple horses in the Bob Hope, but identifying the best one isn't typically difficult—nine of Baffert's winners started as the favorite and two others were the second betting choice behind horses not trained by Baffert.

Saturday's renewal of the Bob Hope attracted a trio of Baffert trainees: #2 Mission Beach, #3 Wine Me Up, and #5 Nysos. The first two are dropping in class out of Grade 1 races, and that's appealing. But seven of Baffert's last nine Bob Hope winners were last-out maiden winners stepping into the stakes ranks for the first time, which is the profile Nysos brings to the table.

A son of 2016 Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Nyquist, Nysos sold for $550,000 as a two-year-old in training and outran expectations when debuting in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Santa Anita last month. Starting as the 6-1 fourth choice against a promising field containing two other Baffert-trained first-time starters, Nysos dueled for command through intense fractions of :21.62 and :44.19 before pulling away decisively to dominate by 10 1/2 lengths.

Despite sprinting hard early, Nysos managed to run his final two furlongs in the solid times of :12.37 and :12.41 to record a blazing final time of 1:08.97. Suffice to say, his performance was rated strongly on the speed figures scales—Nysos earned a 96 Beyer Speed Figure and a 102 Brisnet Speed rating, and in both cases those are the highest numbers belonging to any horse in the Bob Hope field. In fact, none of his rivals have come close to posting numbers like those.

Nysos wore blinkers in his debut but will drop them for his second start, which is a powerful angle for Baffert. Indeed, Baffert has previously employed this strategy with Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify plus Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) winners Arrogate and Bayern, champion West Coast, Preakness (G1) winner National Treasure, and a bevy of other Grade 1 winners.

Throw in the fact Nysos is picking up hot jockey Flavien Prat (6-for-18, 33% to start the Del Mar meet), and what's not to like? The bay colt appears to be sitting on another winning run, and I'm confident he'll deliver victory in the Bob Hope.

As for the other Baffert trainees, Wine Me Up is exiting an eighth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1), in which he tracked the early pace before fading steadily. The stoutly bred son of Vino Rosso had previously wired a six-furlong maiden special weight at Del Mar before finishing a pacesetting second in the 1 1/16-mile American Pharoah (G1) behind Muth, who came back to finish second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

The fact Wine Me Up has placed at the Grade 1 level is bound to draw some betting support, but his pedigree suggests he'll improve with maturity and shine running long. I'm not sure he has the speed to keep up with Nysos while cutting back to seven furlongs, which could leave Wine Me Up vulnerable even while dropping in class.

I find Mission Beach to be more appealing in this spot. The son of Curlin showed tractability in his debut sprinting six furlongs at Del Mar, pressing the pace before taking over to win by 1 1/4 lengths. He subsequently got caught up in a destructive speed duel in the seven-furlong Hopeful (G1) at Saratoga, but led past the eighth pole and was beaten only five lengths while settling for fifth place at the wire. Mission Beach finished best of the pacesetters, and Timberlake—who finished second after sticking fairly close to the early tempo—flattered the form by returning to win the Champagne (G1).

If Mission Beach shows a little more patience in the Bob Hope and avoids hooking up with Nysos and gate-to-wire Santa Anita maiden winner #1 Tejon Pass in a battle for early supremacy, I think we'll see him bounce back with a strong run and record a top-three finish under high-percentage jockey Juan Hernandez, a 33% winner teaming up with Baffert over the last two months per Brisnet statistics.

The other runner who interests me for trifecta purposes is #4 Stronghold, a Kentucky shipper with encouraging form lines. The Phil D'Amato trainee debuted in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Ellis Park and rallied to finish second behind Awesome Road, a promising Brad Cox trainee with the potential to make some noise on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.

Stronghold then stretched out for a one-mile maiden special weight at Churchill Downs and rallied from fourth place to win the one-turn contest by 1 1/2 lengths. I'm optimistic sprinting seven furlongs will suit Stronghold just fine, and fast workouts at Santa Anita and Del Mar suggest he's sitting on a strong showing. If a fast pace unfolds (and it should), Stronghold can pick up the pieces and possibly snatch a spot in the exacta.


1st: Nysos
2nd: Stronghold
3rd: Mission Beach

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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