05/27/2017 8:52PM

Cupid fires off long layoff in Gold Cup

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Benoit & Associates
Cupid, making his first start since September, wins the 1 1/4-mile Gold Cup by 3 1/4 lengths under Rafael Bejarano.

ARCADIA, Calif. – Trainer Bob Baffert’s first few years at Santa Anita were part of the final few years for legendary trainer Charlie Whittingham. Fortunately for Baffert, he was stabled next door to Whittingham, where he could watch, and learn.

 Some of those lessons from more than two decades ago rubbed off on Saturday, as Baffert – much like Whittingham in his heyday – brought a horse off a lengthy layoff to win a 1 1/4-mile race, in this case the Grade 1, $500,690 Gold Cup with Cupid.

 Cupid ($16), benefitting from a contested pace that included his stablemate, American Freedom, pulled clear through the lane to win the Gold Cup by 3 1/4 lengths over an unlucky Follow Me Crev, who was clobbered at the start.

 Hard Aces was another 2 3/4 lengths back in third and was followed, in order, by Midnight Storm, American Freedom, Big John B, and Prime Attraction.

 Cupid was making his first start since September, but it wasn’t supposed to work out this way. He was intended to run in last month’s Californian, but an hour before the race, while receiving a light bath, he slipped and cut a hock, necessitating a late scratch, plus three stitches to close the wound.

 Baffert thus had to bring Cupid into the Gold Cup without that prep. The win gave Baffert his sixth Gold Cup victory. First on the list is Whittingham, with eight.

 “Charlie was the greatest ever,” Baffert said in the winner’s circle. “I was stabled next to him the last couple of years. If he had a good horse he got every ounce out of him. I learned a lot watching him bring a horse off a layoff. I was lucky to hang around Charlie as his neighbor.”

 American Freedom, Baffert’s other runner, was sent off as the 8-5 favorite, and was involved in a bumping incident at the start that left Vladimir Cerin, the trainer of Follow Me Crev, fuming.

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 “He took a right-hand turn,” Cerin said of American Freedom’s first strides leaving the gate.

 American Freedom emerged from that incident to set out for the lead, but he was hounded by 74-1 shot Prime Attraction. As they clicked off fractions of 23.04 seconds for the quarter-mile and 46.52 for the half, Cupid – under Rafael Bejarano – took up a stalking position, just behind and outside the leaders.

 “Bejarano saw what was going on up front and stayed there,” Baffert said.

 American Freedom wilted after six furlongs in 1:10.62, briefly surrendering the lead to Midnight Storm, but Cupid quickly seized control entering the lane and kicked clear. Follow Me Crev, who lost position early, rallied with interest, but could not get close to Cupid.

 Cupid covered 1 1/4 miles on the fast main track in 2:00.89.

 Cupid, 4, is a son of Tapit who was on the Kentucky Derby trail last year before a 10th-place finish as the odds-on favorite in the Arkansas Derby. He subsequently won Grade 2 derbies in Indiana and West Virginia before going to the sidelines after finishing eighth in the Pennsylvania Derby.

He was set to return in the Californian – with demanding works at a mile and two at seven furlongs -- before the freak, pre-race incident.

 “He needed five days off, and then he was coming out of his skin,” Baffert said. “I laid out a plan.”

 The winner’s share of $300,000 brought Cupid’s career earnings to more than $1.6 million, from five wins in 10 starts. More significantly, though, this was his first Grade 1 win, which will look good on a resume for a well-bred colt owned by the Coolmore team of Michael Tabor, Susan Magnier, and Derrick Smith.

 “He’s filled out. He’s always been a beautiful horse,” Baffert said.

 There are options aplenty for Cupid in coming months. But he’ll likely have to travel, much as he did last year.

 “I’m going to keep him away from Arrogate,” Baffert said.