By Richard Rosenblatt
AP Racing Writer
There’s nothing not to love about Cupid.
Not after the way the striking gray colt stepped up and won the $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas over the weekend.
And guess what?
With the victory, Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert is back in Kentucky Derby contention a year after American Pharoah became the first horse in 37 years to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.
Baffert not only has Cupid, who checks in at No. 3 in the AP’s latest Run to the Roses Top 10 list of Derby contenders — behind undefeated leaders Nyquist and Mohaymen — he also trains No. 5 Mor Spirit.
A year ago, American Pharoah splashed his way to a runaway win in the Rebel in his 3-year-old debut. Ditto for Cupid, who won by 1 1/4 lengths over Whitmore in much better racing conditions. A son of Tapit, Cupid is ridden by Martin Garcia, a top jockey who wound up as American Pharaoh’s workout rider while Victor Espinoza rode the horse into history.
With Baffert lurking as the May 7 Derby moves closer, the Nyquist-Mohaymen showdown in the Florida Derby is less than two weeks away. Nyquist (6-0) is prepping well in California. He will be shipped to South Florida next week; Mohaymen (5-0), according to regular exercise rider Miguel Jaime, “feels great, like a Ferrari.” The same was said by the connections of American Pharoah.
The Rebel was just the fourth race for Cupid, his second win and his first stakes race. Cupid had a slow start in the 14-horse field, took the lead early on and was in front the rest of the way, even after he swerved toward the rail when turning for home.
“He was able to overcome that. He got right back on his feet and really showed his athleticism,” Baffert said from Santa Anita, where he watched the race. Next up for the horse who could become the darling of the Derby is a trip home to California, and then likely a plane ride back for the Arkansas Derby on April 16.
Dale Romans, who trains Rebel fourth-place finisher Cherry Wine, took a liking to Cupid.
“They could have pressed that horse gate to wire and they weren’t going to beat him. He’s better than us,” said Romans, who also trains Travers winner Keen Ice. “He was the best horse that day. That doesn’t mean he’ll be the best horse the first Saturday in May. But he’s in the best hands, one thing about it.”
This weekend, Derby qualifying points double: The Louisiana Derby and the UAE Derby in Dubai are worth a total of 170 points each — 100 for first, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.
Currently, Mohaymen leads with 70 points. Cupid is tied with Danzing Candy and Shagaf at 50 points, behind Destin and Gun Runner, who each have 51 points.
Gun Runner, Greenpointcrusader and Mo Tom are among those set for the Louisiana Derby; Frank Conversation, trained by Doug O’Neill (Nyquist’s trainer) is set for the UAE Derby.
Here’s our Top 10:
1. Nyquist (Doug O’Neill, trainer; Mario Gutierrez, jockey): Another solid workout at Santa Anita last week for unbeaten colt. … Worked 5 furlongs in 1:01.40 on Friday. … Heads to Florida in a week. … Next start: Florida Derby, Gulfstream Park, April 2. … Derby odds (pool 3): 7-1.
2. Mohaymen (Kiaran McLaughlin, Junior Alvarado): Unbeaten Fountain of Youth winner worked 5 furlongs last week at Palm Meadows. … Still leader in Derby qualifying points with 70. … Next start: Florida Derby. … Odds: 7-2.
3. Cupid (Bob Baffert, Martin Garcia): Won Rebel by 1 1/4 lengths in stakes debut. … Even with a few issues — slow start, swerve to rail on final turn, gray colt still came through. … Next start: Arkansas Derby, April 16, Oaklawn Park. … Odds: 36-1.
4. Danzing Candy (Cliff Sise Jr., Mike Smith): San Felipe winner has won three in a row after eighth-place finish in first race. … Next start: Santa Anita Derby, Santa Anita, April 9. … Odds: 17-1.
5. Mor Spirit (Baffert, Gary Stevens): San Felipe runner-up heading for rematch with Danzing Candy. … Next start: Santa Anita Derby. … Odds: 12-1.
6. Destin (Todd Pletcher, Javier Castellano): Tampa Bay Derby winner could be headed to Blue Grass, Wood or Arkansas Derby for final prep. … Next start: Undecided. … Odds: 15-1.
7. Shagaf (Chad Brown, Irad Ortiz Jr.): Gotham winner worked 4 furlongs in 48.74 at Belmont on Saturday. … Has 3-0 record for owner Shadwell Stable, which also owns Mohaymen. … Next start: Wood Memorial, Aqueduct, April 9. … Odds: 14-1.
8. Zulu (Pletcher, John Velazquez): Fountain of Youth runner-up worked 4 furlongs in leisurely 50.98 at Palm Beach Downs on Friday. … Next start: Florida Derby. … Odds: 28-1.
9. Mo Tom (Tom Amoss, Corey Lanerie): Lecomte winner slight favorite for 11-horse Louisiana Derby. … Third in Risen Star despite being bothered in stretch. … Next start: Louisiana Derby, Saturday. … Odds: 15-1.
10. Whitmore (Ron Moquett, Ortiz): Moves into contention off runner-up Rebel finish. … Next start: Arkansas Derby. … Odds: 42-1.
Keep an eye on: Brody’s Cause, Exaggerator, Frank Conversation, Gun Runner, Suddenbreakingnews.