Jockey Gary Stevens guides Candy Boy to the winner's circle after… (Benoit Photo / Associated…)
In the horse-racing world, it is still a lifetime until the May 3 Kentucky Derby.
The top horses get hurt. They get ill. They suddenly, for no apparent reason, start turning in the training times of a plow horse. The favorites of mid-February become the forgottens of Triple Crown season.
So when Gary Stevens rode Candy Boy to an impressive victory Saturday at Santa Anita, in the $200,000 Grade II Robert B. Lewis Stakes, both Stevens and trainer John Sadler did their best to couch their enthusiasm. Both failed.
Sadler said that, despite all the great lead-in Derby races around the country, he would keep Candy Boy in Southern California. "Weather everywhere else is terrible, so right now, I'm staying right here … in our own backyard," he said.
Usually, even after success in the February prep races at Santa Anita, trainers will hedge on the next step. Sadler was clear. Candy Boy will be in the big one, the $1-million Santa Anita Derby on April 5.
Stevens was even more clear.
"I've got a lot of good colts [he could ride in the Derby], but this one is my No. 1 draft choice," Stevens said.
Candy Boy beat two promising Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-olds to the wire, Chitu and the previously unbeaten and favored Midnight Hawk. Candy Boy paid $6.60, $3.20 and $2.20.
Stevens said he paid close attention to how Candy Boy galloped out after the finish line, and said that went so well that the additional distance — this race was 11/6 miles and the Derby is 11/4 — should not be a problem.
"We haven't even squeezed the trigger on him yet," Stevens said.
Another staple in the horse-racing world is that the leading characters stay around.
Stevens, who will turn 51 in a month and who retired for seven years before coming back last winter, has won three Kentucky Derbies. His last one was in 1997, aboard Silver Charm. The trainer of Silver Charm was Baffert, who got some gentle ribbing from Stevens as he waited to steer Candy Boy into the winner's circle.
"I just followed Mike Smith around," Stevens said told Baffert.
Smith, one of Stevens' best friends, rode Midnight Hawk to third.
Then Stevens went to the winner's circle and got a trophy and a kiss from Beverly Lewis, who, along with her late husband, Bob, owned Silver Charm.
Sadler's day was especially productive. His Vagabond Shoes won the $200,000 San Marcos Stakes earlier on the program, meaning he delivered a total of $240,000 to his two owners.
In the other major race of the day, the popular team of trainer John Shirreffs and owners Jerry and Ann Moss — who gave us Zenyatta — got an upset win from Blingo in the $300,000 Grade II San Antonio.
Blingo stayed back for most of the race, although nowhere near as far back as Zenyatta, and went from a listless fifth to a sudden burst to first on the home turn. He paid $33.80, $11.40 and $27.20. The stunning show price was boosted when favorite Game On Dude, with $371,000 of the $440,000 in the show pool bet on him, ran out of the money in fifth.
Blingo had acted up in his previous race and Shirreffs had said the horse "ran angry."
Blingo's jockey, Aaron Gryder, said Shirreffs "just told me to keep him happy. So I did."