08/24/2008 12:00AM

Midnight Lute 'fired up' for comeback


DEL MAR, Calif. - There was a time earlier this year, trainer Bob Baffert admits, that he did not think Midnight Lute would make it back to the races. The year had dawned with much promise. Midnight Lute was named the Eclipse Award-winning sprinter of 2007, and a race like the Metropolitan Mile seemed like a realistic early-season goal before zeroing in anew on a second sprint championship.

But for months, Midnight Lute was out of training.

"He jammed his hind end, and we had to stop on him," Baffert said. "Nothing that needed surgery, fortunately. The synthetic tracks will do that. They can be really hard on the hind end."

Baffert's winter and spring of discontent has now passed. In recent weeks, Midnight Lute has been training sensationally.

"He looks like his old self," Baffert said.

Baffert could have sent Midnight Lute back to Saratoga for a defense of his title in the Grade 1 Forego Handicap, which proved the first half of his Eclipse parlay last year. Instead, after watching Midnight Lute glide over Del Mar's track in his workouts the past five weeks, Baffert decided to remain here with Midnight Lute for the Grade 2, $300,000 Pat O'Brien Handicap on Sunday.

"He looks good," Baffert said. "He's fired up now." Baffert is fired up, too. His admiration for Midnight Lute is palpable.

"This horse is freaky," Baffert said. "He's just an amazing animal. He just looks the part. It's rare you get one like that."

The winner of the Pat O'Brien receives an automatic berth into the Breeders' Cup Sprint, on Oct. 25 at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting, through the Win and You're In program.

Midnight Lute, who was assigned top weight of 122 pounds for the seven-furlong race, drew post 3 and faces 11 rivals, including such accomplished synthetic surface sprint specialists (say that five times fast) as In Summation, Lewis Michael, and Rebellion.

But Baffert believes that if Midnight Lute runs to his training, he will put on a show.

"He just needs to get away," Baffert said. "He's so big he doesn't fit in these gates. He's like a sausage in there. But once he gets rolling, he's like that Jamaican guy, Usain Bolt."

In Summation comes off a second-place finish July 27 in the six-furlong Bing Crosby, a race he might have won with a better trip. He was beaten one length after encountering traffic trouble twice in the final quarter-mile.

"I thought he ran a huge race," In Summation's trainer, Christophe Clement, said Friday from Saratoga.

Rebellion turns back to a sprint after finishing fifth in the San Diego Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on July 19. He won consecutive sprint stakes on synthetic surfaces in his two prior starts.

Lewis Michael is making only his second start of the year, and his first at Del Mar, but he has raced well on synthetic surfaces at Arlington and Keeneland, including a second-place finish to Midnight Lute in Keeneland's Perryville Stakes in October 2006.

Barbecue Eddie is the one to catch. He was caught in a quick pace duel in the Bing Crosby, but has a chance to stick around longer if he can get away with a softer early opening quarter-mile, as he did when leading from start to finish going seven furlongs at Hollywood Park on June 28.

Hewitts also should be prominent from the start. He has worked swiftly for his first start since May, and he owns three wins in four starts on synthetic surfaces.