01/01/2017 9:14PM

Midnight Storm strengthens credentials for Pegasus World Cup by winning San Pasqual

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Barbara D. Livingston
Midnight Storm, ridden by Rafael Bejarano, scores a front-running victory in the San Pasqual.

ARCADIA, Calif.- Consecutive stakes wins on off tracks have redefined Midnight Storm’s career. The victories may lead to a start in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park on Jan. 28.

Sunday at Santa Anita, Midnight Storm led throughout the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes on a wet-fast track, setting a quick pace and holding off a late threat from Accelerate to win by 1 1/4 lengths.

“He dug in there and loved the off track,” trainer Phil D’Amato said.

Midnight Storm ($3.20) was heavily favored in a field of four. The complexion of the race changed remarkably on Sunday morning when trainer Bob Baffert withdrew Arrogate, the winner of the Breeders’ Cup Classic here on Nov. 5. Baffert said he did not want to run Arrogate on a wet track. Arrogate is the leading candidate for the Pegasus World Cup.

Midnight Storm, who races for Alex Venneri and the Little Red Feather Racing partnership, was mentioned as a candidate for the Pegasus after an easy win in the Grade 3 Native Diver Stakes at 1 1/8 miles at Del Mar on Nov. 27. Sunday’s win led to further discussions about a start in the Pegasus World Cup.

Main-track stakes wins are a change in career for Midnight Storm, who excelled on turf in 2016, winning the Grade 1 Shoemaker Mile here last June and finishing third in the BC Mile on Nov. 5.

In the Grade 2 San Pasqual at 1 1/16 miles, Midnight Storm was in front shortly after the start, a tactic D’Amato and jockey Rafael Bejarano discussed on Sunday morning.

“I wanted to get a good start and put him on the lead,” Bejarano said.

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Midnight Storm led by a length through an opening quarter-mile in 23.02 seconds, and a half-mile in 45.59. On the backstretch, Dalmore ranged alongside Midnight Storm, getting within a half-length of the front.

“When I went to the lead, I felt the pressure right away chasing me,” Bejarano said.

Midnight Storm led by a half-length on the turn and by a length with a furlong to go. Dalmore could not sustain his threat and was passed by Accelerate in the final furlong.

Dalmore finished third, beaten 3 3/4 lengths, with Prospect Park a well-beaten fourth.

Even without Arrogate in the race, D’Amato had a clear idea of a race strategy for Midnight Storm.

 “We were going to go to the lead if Arrogate was in there or not,” D’Amato said. “We thought Accelerate would press us more than Dalmore.”

Midnight Storm was timed in 1:40.65. A 6-year-old by Pioneerof the Nile, Midnight Storm has won 10 of 21 starts and has earned $1,461,110.

Venneri said there is no pressure to start Midnight Storm in the Pegasus. An alternative is the $750,000 Santa Anita Handicap here on March 11. Eventually, Venneri said he wants to start Midnight Storm against Arrogate.

“We pointed for this race because we thought Arrogate would run here,” Venneri said.  “Unless we can get a deal, we won’t run him in the Pegasus.”