03/06/2017 12:20PM

Bejarano back in time for meet's biggest races

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Rafael Bejarano returned to racing this past weekend, three weeks after sustaining a knee injury.

ARCADIA, Calif. – One viewing of the replay of the ninth race at Santa Anita on Feb. 11 was enough for veteran jockey Rafael Bejarano. The memories returned quickly when he saw the spill in a turf race that left him sidelined for nearly three weeks.

“It looked bad,” Bejarano said.

The incident left Bejarano with a sore knee that could have been worse, he said.

“The doctor, he told me it would be longer,” Bejarano said. “I went back to him after a week, and he couldn’t believe how improved I was. He said, ‘You’ll come back quickly.’ ”

Bejarano resumed riding last Friday. He rode his first winner since the afternoon of the spill last Saturday.

The comeback occurred just in time for Bejarano to ride in several of the most important races of the winter-spring meeting. He has mounts Saturday in three Grade 1 races at Santa Anita – Midnight Storm in the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap, Ring Weekend in the $400,000 Frank Kilroe Mile on turf, and Conquest Cobra in the $400,000 Triple Bend Stakes at seven furlongs.

In other ways, he has been left behind: Through Sunday, Bejarano has only one stakes win at the meeting. He has won 19 races and is well behind leading rider Flavien Prat, who has 41 winners. The winter-spring meeting ends April 9. Catching Prat will be impossible.

“I’ve won so many titles,” Bejarano said. “Maybe the next meet.”

A native of Peru, Bejarano, 34, has won 28 riding titles in Southern California since he began riding on this circuit on a year-round basis in 2007. He won the riding title at four consecutive winter-spring meetings at Santa Anita from 2012-13 through last year.

Bejarano’s reputation as a go-to jockey on a daily basis is secure. He seeks more prominent mounts in stakes.

Midnight Storm was Bejarano’s leading mount in 2016. Now 5, Midnight Storm won 4 of 7 starts, all in stakes, and earned $779,000 in 2016. Bejarano was aboard for six of those races.

Bejarano rode Midnight Storm to wins in three consecutive turf stakes last year – the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile here in June, the Grade 2 Eddie Read Stakes at Del Mar in July, and the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile in August – before finishing third in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, losing by two lengths to Tourist.

Bejarano won 16 graded stakes in 2016, but none after Oct. 1, when Noted and Quoted won the Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at Santa Anita. During the two days of Breeders’ Cup races here in November, Midnight Storm was his best result in seven Breeders’ Cup mounts.

Midnight Storm has won his last two starts, both on dirt – the Grade 3 Native Diver Stakes at 1 1/8 miles at Del Mar on Nov. 27 and the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on a wet-fast track here Jan. 1. Mike Smith rode Midnight Storm in the Native Diver, but Bejarano was back aboard for the San Pasqual.

Those performances have left Bejarano convinced he can coax Midnight Storm through 1 1/4 miles in the Big Cap.

“It will be good,” Bejarano said. “He ran a mile and an eighth, and he won with a slow pace.

“The last race was faster. The speed was chasing me. I think he has learned to relax.”

The knee injury is the second setback for Bejarano in the last five months. Bejarano was sidelined in early November because of a soft-tissue injury to his hand that happened away from the races. He missed the Del Mar autumn meeting and the Los Alamitos winter meeting and did not resume riding until Dec. 26, the opening day of the current meeting.

Midnight Storm’s victory in the San Pasqual is his only stakes win this year.

“I’m happy to be back,” Bejarano said. “I was focused on coming back. That was the priority.”