03/20/2010 12:00AM

O'Neill eyes end to stakes drought

Benoit & Associates
Mr Gruff wins his comeback race at Santa Anita on Friday. He will now be pointed for the San Simeon Handicap, a race he won last year.

ARCADIA, Calif. - More than five months have passed since trainer Doug O'Neill won his last stakes, with Bench the Judge in the California Cup Juvenile last October. The drought has not been for a lack of trying; O'Neill has had 37 starters in stakes throughout the nation since then.

In April, O'Neill could break out of that slump in two lucrative races. Thomas Baines starts in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby on April 3, and Enriched is being pointed to the $1 million Charles Town Classic in West Virgnia on April 17.

Enriched earned a start in the Charles Town Classic after winning an optional claimer over 1 1/8 miles on turf in Friday's fifth race at Santa Anita. Ridden by Michael Baze, Enriched stalked pacesetter Gothic Samurai through a quick pace of 22.16 and 45.64 seconds, took the lead before the eighth pole, and won by 1 1/4 lengths.

The optional claimer was Enriched's first win since he was claimed for $32,000 when winning an optional claimer on the hillside turf course here last November. The 5-year-old gelding earned $40,560 for Friday's win.

Enriched has made seven starts for his current owners and trainer, including three second-place finishes in statebred stakes. O'Neill said he's thrived with the action.

"It seems like he's made a lot of starts with us, but with racing he's calmed down nicely," O'Neill said.

Enriched is a half-brother to Lava Man, a seven-time Grade 1 winner who is the best horse that O'Neill has trained. Lava Man thrived in California but did not run well in other circuits or countries.

"His brother hated traveling," O'Neill said.

Since being claimed, Enriched has earned $116,490.

Thomas Baines essentially earned a spot in the Santa Anita Derby with a half-length win in an optional claimer over a mile here March 3.

On Friday, O'Neill said that Joel Rosario has been booked to ride the gelding, who has made five starts in this country. Bred in Kentucky, Thomas Baines began his career in England last spring and won 1 of 7 starts from April to September.

Now owned by AJL Productions, Thomas Baines has made three starts in stakes, finishing third in the Eddie Logan Stakes on turf here in December and second in the California Derby at Golden Gate Fields in January before finishing sixth in the Grade 3 El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Feb. 20.

Thomas Baines was near the front in the El Camino Real Derby and never rated, O'Neill said.

"He did the accelerator-stuck thing and never settled," O'Neill said.

In the optional claimer on March 3, Thomas Baines rallied from sixth to win by a half-length.

"I think anything close to that and he'll be competitive," O'Neill said of the Santa Anita Derby.

The Santa Anita Derby field is led by the 2010 stakes winners Sidney's Candy (San Felipe Stakes on March 13), Caracortado (Robert Lewis Stakes on Feb. 13), and Alphie's Bet (Sham Stakes on March 6).

Who's Up, unraced since winning the Grade 3 Generous Stakes at Hollywood Park last May, is part of the expected field, along with Cardiff Giant, Outlaw Man, Posse Power, Setsuko, and Skip Shot.

Mr Gruff returns, adds to win streak

Mr Gruff extended his winning streak to three races over the last 53 weeks with a comfortable win in an optional claimer on the hillside turf course in Friday's seventh race.

Mr Gruff was making his first start since the Grade 3 San Simeon Handicap on the hillside turf course at Santa Anita last April, a race that trainer Ron Ellis wants to target on April 17.

"I wanted to get him a start for that race," Ellis said.

In Friday's race, Mr Gruff ran about 6 1/2 furlongs on the hillside turf course in a quick 1:11.69, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over Prairie City Road.

Owned by Gary Broad, Mr Gruff was plagued by a back problem last fall after being given the summer off, Ellis said..