Heinz Steinmann's Creative Cause re-asserted himself as arguably the top Kentucky Derby prospect on the West Coast with a strong late run in Saturday's Grade 2, $300,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Improving off his third in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes in his 2012 debut, the Mike Harrington trainee collared Bodemeister in the stretch, wore down his stubborn foe, and won going away by three-quarters of a length. Creative Cause will now clash with the circuit's other major prep winner, Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis hero I'll Have Another, in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby on April 7.
The San Felipe was widely viewed as the deepest Derby prep race so far this season. Despite the withdrawal of Out of Bounds, who is sidelined by a fractured ankle, and Fed Biz, who had a minor hiccup but is still on the trail, the 1 1/16-mile test lured a terrific group of classic hopefuls.
Creative Cause had the best resume, as the winner of last year's Grade 1 Norfolk and Grade 2 Best Pal, and as the third-place finisher behind Hansen and Union Rags in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. But also attracting considerable support was Bodemeister, a Bob Baffert pupil who was stepping up in class off a 9 1/4-length maiden conquest. Bettors dispatched both at odds of 2-1, but the fresh face of Bodemeister garnered slight favoritism.
American Act, who had beaten Bodemeister in an earlier maiden, and defeated Creative Cause when just missing in the San Vicente, sprinted to the early lead. Bodemeister prompted the pacesetter through splits of :22 4/5 and :46 4/5.
Tiz Point and Groovin' Solo were in the next flight, while Creative Cause was traveling well in fifth for Joel Rosario. Midnight Transfer, who was stretching out off a victory in the San Pedro, also appeared full of run as he bided his time in sixth. Among those racing further back were Creative Cause's stablemate, Empire Way, and Baffert's other runner, Grade 1 CashCall Futurity hero Liaison.
The picture began to change on the far turn. Bodemeister put his head in front of a weakening American Act through six furlongs in 1:11 1/5, Creative Cause was making eye-catching progress on the outside, and Midnight Transfer was advancing in the midst of traffic.
As the field swung for home, Creative Cause had all of the momentum, and appeared poised to blow by Bodemeister. But Creative Cause drifted out wide, and Bodemeister rose to the challenge to regain the advantage. Bodemeister, who came out himself to eyeball Creative Cause, was a half-length on top in midstretch.
Inside the final sixteenth, however, Creative Cause surged again and finally put Bodemeister away. After stopping the clock in a sharp 1:41 4/5 on the fast track, Creative Cause galloped out like a monster and opened up on the field.
"The race set up perfect today," Rosario said. "There were a couple horses with speed up front, and when I saw that, I just let him find his stride and go from there. My horse was a little green at the top of the lane, but I wanted to make sure that he didn't wait for another horse to come beat him.
"He galloped out good after the wire, which helps to show he may be the right horse for the Derby. That means a lot to me. I'm happy to get a chance to ride in it, and I want to win the race. Mike (Harrington) doesn't say too much, but he's really smart, and he's done a really good job with this horse."
"I guess any win is good," Harrington said when asked about how Creative Cause was forced to work hard. "They got to work if they win it. Perfect (the way the race unfolded)."
Bodemeister finished a clear second, 2 1/4 lengths to the good of Midnight Transfer, who kept on gamely without threatening the top two.
"My horse ran a really good race," jockey Rafael Bejarano said of Bodemeister. "He broke really well from the gate. I was in the perfect position. He was really comfortable. He showed me a big kick in the stretch. The other horse had to run really hard to beat me. He tried really hard. It's only his third time."
"He ran well," Baffert said. "He just got a little tired. He ran a pretty hard race."
Midnight Transfer's connections were also pleased.
"He ran very good," said Victor Espinoza, who was riding him in a race for the first time. "It was his first time going long, and I think he's going to improve from this. I had no trouble in the race. I was very happy about my trip all the way around."
"I'm very happy with his race," trainer Carla Gaines said, "considering it was his first time going two turns. He was down on the inside the whole way, but I thought he ran well. I was just hoping there was a little more kick that last jump, but it was a good experience for him."
There was a gap of 2 1/2 lengths back to Liaison in fourth. Rousing Sermon, Blingo, American Act, Tiz Point, Empire Way and Groovin' Solo rounded out the order under the wire.
Harrington said that Empire Way would head out of town for his next start.
"The other horse (Empire Way) will go someplace else," the trainer said. "I don't know why he didn't run today, but maybe he didn't like dirt in his face, whatever, but he won't run back here."
Creative Cause, who paid $6.40, $3.40 and $2.60, boosted his bankroll to $719,000 from a record of 7-4-1-2. A sensational debut winner at Hollywood Park last July, he beat I'll Have Another next time out in the Best Pal at Del Mar. Third, but elevated to second, in a wild rodeo of a finish in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, Creative Cause rebounded in the Norfolk at Santa Anita, his first try at two turns and on dirt.
Creative Cause was beaten a grand total of a length in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, a formline that has proven to be rock solid. Juvenile winner Hansen most recently romped in the Grade 3 Gotham, and the Juvenile runner-up, Union Rags, cruised in the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth. Another Juvenile alumnus to score on Saturday was Prospective, the trailer in the Breeders' Cup, who landed the Grade 2 Tampa Bay Derby.
Shortening up to seven furlongs for the San Vicente, Creative Cause was run off his feet early, but closed doggedly late and galloped out well. In the San Felipe, he was returning to the same track and 1 1/16-mile distance as his impressive Norfolk score last fall.
"I said all along it's a progression," Harrington said, "and the only thing I hope is he doesn't peak in the Santa Anita Derby instead of the Kentucky Derby (on May 5). That's my job to kind of keep that from happening. I felt he would run big off the San Vicente. A lot of people thought the San Vicente was a bad race. I was ecstatic with it.
"It's a real relief to get these kinds of things over with," the trainer added. "This was a $300,000 (race); he didn't have to win it, but these are the kind of races you like to win. I wouldn't have been disappointed if he didn't win because he's got money enough to go (to the Kentucky Derby based on graded earnings, $506,000 before the San Felipe).
Bred by James C. Weigel in Kentucky, Creative Cause was sold for $135,000 as a Keeneland September yearling. The Giant's Causeway colt is the third registered foal from millionaire Dream of Summer, queen of the Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap, Grade 2 A Gleam Invitational Handicap, and Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo and Gardenia Handicaps. Also a two-time winner of the Cal Cup Matron, she twice placed in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita Invitational.