06/01/2012 2:18PM

Hollywood Park: Liaison looks to rebound in Affirmed Stakes

Tom Keyser
Trainer Bob Baffert expects Liaison to show improvement in Sunday's Grade 3 Affirmed Stakes at Hollywood Park.

INGLEWOOD, Calif. – It was not a good winter for Liaison, who began 2012 among the top Kentucky Derby candidates in California. His reputation slipped race by race.

Four losses and five months later, Liaison aims for a resurrection at Betfair Hollywood Park. It certainly is the right track. Liaison won the CashCall Futurity in December at Hollywood, and trainer Bob Baffert expects the old Liaison to reappear Sunday.

A field of seven entered the Grade 3 Affirmed Handicap, a homecoming for Liaison following a sixth-place finish in the Kentucky Derby. What about his current form?

“I think he’s back to where he was in the CashCall,” Baffert said.

That might be enough.

But the 1 1/16-mile Affirmed is no walkover, and Liaison faces six legitimate challengers. They include lightly raced Nonios, improving Holy Candy, front-runners Gun Boat and American Act, turf stakes winner Blingo, and statebred stakes winner Unusual Heatwave.

Liaison is the only three-time winner in the Affirmed, the only Grade 1 winner, and the only starter good enough to run in the Kentucky Derby. He also is starting over, because after winning the CashCall in December, his form declined – lost rider, fourth, and sixth.

“He was not training that well at Santa Anita this winter, but the minute I got him to Kentucky, I could tell a big difference,” Baffert said. “He just started coming around.”

It was too late. Liaison finished sixth in the Derby and skipped the Preakness.

“He got a little light on me, it took him a little longer” to recover, Baffert said.

The colt returned home, and Liaison signaled his readiness with a bullet 58.60-second workout Monday.

“He worked really well,” Baffert emphasized.

Rafael Bejarano rides Liaison; Joe Talamo rides Baffert sprinter Gun Boat, who may set the pace.

“He’s got a lot of speed, I’m hoping he can stretch it,” Baffert said.

Gun Boat may have company up front.

American Act won the Harry Henson on April 26, despite blowing the turn, and then finished second in the Grade 3, seven-furlong Lazaro Barrera.

A chief new challenger is Nonios, who also shipped this spring to Kentucky. However, he scratched April 28 in the paddock for the Derby Trial, an incident on which trainer Jerry Hollendorfer declined to elaborate.

“He got fractious and scratched,” he said.

Nonios raced three times at Golden Gate. He won his sprint debut, stretched out and won again, then faced older in a second-level allowance.

“If we were going to run him in a stakes, I thought he’d have to run well against older horses, which he did,” Hollendorfer said.

Nonios finished a creditable third in a race that turned out productive. Three runners won next out (including two stakes), while two others won second start back. Nonios worked well since returning from Kentucky and will be ridden by Martin Pedroza.

The $100,000 Affirmed is the prep for the Grade 2, $150,000 Swaps Stakes on July 4. Hollendorfer-trained Rousing Sermon is aiming for the Swaps, and the trainer added “I wouldn’t count out Nonios.”

Holy Candy has worked well for his first start since a fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Blue Grass. John Sadler trains the 1-for-5 colt who will be ridden by Joel Rosario.

Blingo is 2 for 2 on grass; he finished sixth in both starts on the main track. John Shirreffs trains the son of Artie Schiller, while Unusual Heatwave moves up in class after winning the $300,000 Snow Chief Stakes for California-bred 3-year-olds.