02/02/2017 2:20PM

Accelerate, Mor Spirit benefit from shorter San Antonio

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Accelerate fits well at the San Antonio's revised distance of 1 1/16 miles.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The handicap division in California goes through the Bob Baffert stable, which means this winter is like most winters at Santa Anita.

The emerging superstar Arrogate will not start anytime soon, but the trainer has ammunition to gun for another Santa Anita Handicap and another San Antonio Stakes, races Baffert has won four times in the past seven years.

The Baffert trainees Hoppertunity and Mor Spirit launch their 2017 campaigns Saturday as top contenders in the Grade 2 San Antonio, the final local prep for the March 11 Big Cap. Beyond the looming presence of up-and-comer Accelerate, this season’s San Antonio is different.

For the first time since 1941, the race shortens to 1 1/16 miles. Traditions change, even temporarily, and the timing is perfect this year. Training frequently was interrupted during a rainy January. Preparing a horse for the traditional San Antonio distance of 1 1/8 miles could have been difficult.

“I was a little worried about the mile and one-eighth,” Accelerate’s trainer, John Sadler said. “He’s won at a mile and an eighth. I was worried … can I get the training in?”

No need. The reduced distance is the same at which Accelerate finished a sharp second in his recent comeback.

The reduction also benefits Mor Spirit, fourth in his comeback at seven furlongs. The challenge of stretching out to a route following just a single sprint is mitigated. As Baffert noted, the San Antonio “is only a mile and a sixteenth.”

The change from 1 1/8 miles was partly accidental. While planning the winter schedule, officials considered moving the San Antonio to Dec. 26 and shortening it as a Santa Anita prep race for the $12 million Pegasus World Cup last Saturday at Gulfstream Park.

“We originally made the race a mile and a sixteenth, which would have made sense [for Dec. 26],” racing secretary Rick Hammerle said. “We decided to continue with the same schedule and never changed it back,” referring to the traditional 1 1/8 miles.

After the condition book was published, Hammerle stood pat.

“I starting thinking about all the lost training we had, and when the book came out, we did decide to just leave it at a mile and a sixteenth.”

The San Antonio could return to 1 1/8 miles in 2018.

If the shorter distance benefits Accelerate and Mor Spirit, it compromises Hoppertunity, a stretch runner who won the 2016 San Antonio.

Saturday’s field also includes front-runners El Huerfano and Dalmore, Avanti Bello, Prospect Park, and Hard Aces.

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The San Antonio is one of four graded stakes here Saturday. The Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis for Santa Anita Derby prospects is race 2, the Grade 2 Palos Verdes for sprinters is race 3, and the Grade 2 San Marcos, at 1 1/4 miles on turf, ends the card in race 9.

Although the race-8 San Antonio is a prep race for the Big Cap, it is absent division leaders Arrogate and Midnight Storm. Arrogate resumed training Thursday after winning the Pegasus World Cup, and Baffert is in no rush to identify a next start. The Dubai World Cup on March 28 is an option.

“He came back [to California] really well,” Baffert said. “We’re going to wait a few weeks before deciding what to do. There are lots of options.”

Midnight Storm is the early favorite for the Big Cap, having won five of his last six starts sandwiched around a third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Midnight Storm has been invited to the Dubai World Cup, but trainer Phil D’Amato said the current target is the Big Cap.

San Antonio, Race 8

KEY CONTENDERS

Accelerate, by Lookin At Lucky

Last 3 Beyers: 99-101-91

◗ Tyler Baze rides Accelerate, a 3-for-8 Grade 2 winner who should get a perfect trip positioned second or third behind the speed.

◗ He finished second to Midnight Storm last out on a wet-fast track.

“I think he’ll do even better on a normal-type racetrack,” Sadler said.

Hoppertunity, by Any Given Saturday

Last 3 Beyers: 93-104-04

◗ He is racing for the first time since an uncharacteristically dull fourth in the Grade 1 Clark on Nov. 25 at Churchill Downs.

“He just ran a flat race,” Baffert said. “That little break really helped him. Coming into this race, he is training really well.”

◗ Flavien Prat rides Hoppertunity, a 6-for-24 veteran whose $3,888,425 earnings exceed the total of the remainder of the field.

Mor Spirit, by Eskendereya

Last 3 Beyers: 98-82-94

◗ Grade 1 winner at 2, he finished second in last year’s Santa Anita Derby before finishing 10th in the Kentucky Derby. His fourth in the seven-furlong Malibu was his comeback.

“He really needed that. It was a little short for him,” Baffert said. “He’s actually been working with Hoppertunity. They’ve been working heads up, so that’s good.”

◗ Mike Smith rides Mor Spirit.