07/16/2016 9:57PM

Cupid regains good form in Indiana Derby

Jamiee Linscott/Linscott Photography
Cupid overcomes post 11 under Rafael Bejarano to win the Indiana Derby by three-quarters of a length.

SHELBYVILLE, Indiana -- Cupid was done in by a breathing problem in the Arkansas Derby and by who knows quite what in the Easy Goer at Belmont Park last month, but he looked a lot more like the horse who turned heads in the Rebel Stakes this past March winning the Grade 2, $500,000 Indiana Derby on Saturday night at Indiana Grand.

Cupid won by three-quarters of a length over The Player, who ran well for a horse making his stakes and two-turn debut, but the margin of victory belied the strength of Cupid’s performance. He broke a half-beat slow from post 11 and halfway to the first turn looked in danger of being hung five or six wide around the bend, but jockey Rafael Bejarano asked for speed and got enough to clear all but Pilot House and Cocked and Loaded. Cupid took second from Cocked and Loaded and ran head and head with Pilot House through a half-mile  in a demanding 46.75 seconds, but Cupid lengthened his stride before the three-furlong pole and put Pilot House away. No sooner had he disposed of that rival than The Player attacked, but despite failing to change leads in the homestretch, Cupid turned back that foe, too, and won a hard-earned decision.

 “I’m just happy for the horse,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who was reached at a wedding in Mexico and didn’t even see the race. “His last race was so disappointing.”

The Player, who was a little green around the first turn, made a solid three-wide bid on the second turn to reach contention, but could not quite close the deal after two straight one-turn-mile wins at Churchill.

“It was just his fifth start,” said trainer Buff Bradley. “We know he can go two turns now.”

The Player finished 2 3/4 lengths in front of Star Hill, who broke from post 12 and rallied from ninth on a night when not much was moving from the back of the pack in main-track races. Whateverybodywants finished fourth, while Cherry Wine, the second choice, raced last early and never made much of a move, finishing ninth.

Cupid ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.30 and paid $5.40 to win after being heavily played to odds-on favoritism early in the wagering.

Baffert was convinced the breathing problem that took Cupid off the Triple Crown trail in the Arkansas Derby wasn’t to blame for his poor showing in the one-turn Easy Goer on the Belmont Stakes undercard, and hoped a return to two-turn racing would spark a return to form. Cupid’s strongest attribute, which he showed winning the Rebel, is his high, sustained cruising speed, and that was what won him the Indiana Derby.

Saddled by assistant trainer Jim Barnes, Cupid will fly  back to California from Indianapolis on Tuesday. Baffert, who two weeks ago won the Iowa Derby with American Freedom, said there are no set plans for the colt.

“I’m going to get him back home, and we’re going to wait and see how much this knocked him out or whatever,” he said.

Cupid races for the Coolmore connections, owners Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor, and Derrick Smith. Bred in Kentucky by JKG Thoroughbreds, he’s a son of Tapit and the Beau Genius mare Pretty ‘n Smart, and was purchased as a yearling at Keeneland for $900,000. This was his third win – all around two turns – from seven career starts.

Indiana Grand handled $3,156,859 on the 10-race card, easily surpassing the track's previous highest single-card handle of about $2.7 million. There was $914,311 bet on the Indiana Derby alone, a single-race record, and $133,864 bet into the all-stakes pick four spanning races 6 through 9, a track record for that bet. With three favorites and a 2-1 shot in the sequence, the pick four paid just $41.05 for 50 cents.