04/26/2012 2:28PM

Churchill Downs notes: Owner comfortable with taking On Fire Baby directly to Kentucky Oaks

Coady Photography/Oaklawn Park
Owner Anita Cauley says she has no regrets about skipping the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn with On Fire Baby and heading directly to the Kentucky Oaks.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Anita Cauley has been asked the question more than a few times: Why didn’t On Fire Baby run in the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park as a logical final prep for the Kentucky Oaks?

“I went back-and-forth on whether to run there or not before I just finally decided to wait for the Oaks,” said Cauley, who bred and owns On Fire Baby, a gray filly who figures as one of the favorites next Friday in the 138th running of the $1 million Oaks.

That’s reasonable enough. Rumors on the racetrack being what they are, there was talk that perhaps something was amiss with On Fire Baby, and that’s why the April 11 Fantasy was not used as a stepping-stone from her impressive victory in the March 10 Honeybee to the Oaks. Regardless of all that speculation, however, is the fact that On Fire Baby appears to be thriving since returning to Churchill to train over the same surface where the filly was sensational last fall in sweeping the Pocahontas and Golden Rod stakes for trainer Gary Hartlage. Clearly, it behooves Cauley to look forward, not back.

“I’m happy with my decision,” she said.

Meanwhile, trainer Bob Baffert declared one of his Oaks hopefuls, Mamma Kimbo, from the race, saying he wants to wait instead in the May 18 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico. Mamma Kimbo won the April 11 Fantasy Stakes in just her second start. Baffert still has Eden’s Moon and Jemima’s Pearl for the Oaks.

Meanwhile, Todd Pletcher said a Saturday workout at Palm Meadows in Florida will determine whether or not he will run Broadway’s Alibi in the Oaks. Pletcher, a two-time winner of the Oaks with Ashado (2004) and Rags to Riches (2007), already has committed In Lingerie to the race.

The full-gate maximum of 14 3-year-old fillies, along with as many as four also-eligibles, is expected when Oaks entries are taken Tuesday. Most of the runners were scheduled to have their final pre-race workouts over the weekend.

Musical chairs among trainers

The Churchill barn area has assumed a slightly different look than in years past, at least in terms of which trainers are where. The death of Bob Holthus last November led to a few dominos moving, with David Vance and Randy Morse moving horses into the barn he occupied for years.

Nick Zito has abandoned Barn 37, even for Derby week, to keep his entire stable back East. After the Derby, Pletcher, who has maintained a sizable string for recent spring meets here, will give up his stalls in Barn 34. Larry Jones has moved in to take the spot long occupied by Dallas Stewart, who in turn has moved down to the far end of the mile chute in the barn that long housed the Tony Reinstedler stable. Reinstedler now works as a farm manager for Adena Springs in Ocala, Fla.

These are just some of the moves that reflect a changing dynamic that might hint of trouble filling races in the post-Derby segment of the meet. Like many tracks across the country, Churchill downsized to a shorter race week (from five days to four) several years ago primarily because races had become more difficult to fill.

Who will succeed Leparoux as king?

The way Julien Leparoux dominated the Keeneland spring meet served as a reminder of how he will be missed when he leaves after the Kentucky Derby to ride regularly in New York. Leparoux has been the dominant rider at the main Kentucky meets (Keeneland and Churchill) since 2006, and it is anyone’s guess as to how the void will be filled.

The most likely outcome is that Robby Albarado and Calvin Borel will win more races, while Corey Lanerie, Shaun Bridgmohan, and Miguel Mena also should enjoy a big meet. Others riding here on a regular basis post-Derby will include Manny Cruz, Greta Kuntzweiler, Victor Lebron, John McKee, and Gabriel Saez.

Kent Desormeaux, who has ridden the spring and fall meets in Kentucky in recent years, also is leaving after the Derby to ride in New York.

Welker’s runners doing well

Speedy New England Patriots wide receiver Wes Welker is known in the NFL for being difficult to catch, a trait also seen in his racehorses this meet at Keeneland.

In Thursday’s opener, Welker’s 2-year-old Undrafted used his quickness to dominate a field of maidens, winning by three lengths and racing 4 1/2 furlongs in a quick 50.74 seconds.

The win came just 10 days after Gypsy Robin, a horse in which Welker is a co-owner, led from start to finish to win the Grade 2 Beaumont Stakes.

“He’s a great guy,” trainer Wesley Ward said of Welker. “He’s been very lucky. He’s won a lot of races, probably half his starts.”

Asked if Welker visits his horses very often, Ward responded, “Does he ever; he loves ‘em.”

Undrafted, a 2-year-old gelded son of Purim, was named by Welker, who races under the stable name King 9 Stables, Ward said. Welker, an eventual Pro Bowler, was not drafted coming out of college at Texas Tech.

Like Welker, Undrafted was someone overlooked by most, paying $14.40 – a price rarely seen a winning Ward-trained juvenile at Keeneland.

In an interesting coincidence, Undrafted’s debut came on the first day of the 2012 NFL draft.

◗ Butch Lehr, who recently announced his retirement as the longtime Churchill track superintendent when the spring meet ends July 1, will be honored Monday night in Louisville as the recipient of the prestigious Dean Eagle Award from the local Knights of Columbus chapter. Lehr, 63, has worked on the Churchill backstretch since 1967 and as superintendent since 1982.

– additional reporting by Byron King