01/31/2013 3:18PM

Santa Anita: Flashback steps up in compact Robert B. Lewis Stakes

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ARCADIA, Calif. – Flashback was starting to jog back to the barn following a routine gallop at Santa Anita on Thursday morning when a misbehaving horse came close to brushing him right in front of the grandstand, where trainer Bob Baffert was watching.

“Get him out of there,” Baffert shouted to exercise rider Manny Avila, his voice a mixture of anxiety and jocularity.

“Whenever he’s out there, I just want to get it over with,” Baffert said.

There’s good reason for Baffert’s nervous anticipation. Flashback was a dazzling winner of his debut Dec. 8 at Betfair Hollywood Park, and on the short list of California’s top prospects for the May 4 Kentucky Derby, he is – despite his inexperience – among the leaders.

His profile could rise further Saturday, when Flashback goes straight from that maiden win – in a sprint – into a two-turn graded stakes race, the Grade 2, $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at 1 1/16 miles Santa Anita.

[ROBERT B. LEWIS: Get Santa Anita PPs, watch Saturday's card live]

“I’m looking forward to it,” Baffert said. “From here on out, it’s a critical time for these horses. There’s very little margin for error.”

The Lewis came up well for Flashback. Only three others entered – including Den’s Legacy from Baffert’s barn – and Flashback looks to be the controlling speed. That’s an advantage for the least-experienced horse in the race.

“It’s not like there’s 12 in there, where something could happen,” Baffert said.

Flashback, a gray colt by Tapit, was so well-regarded for his debut that he was even-money in a nine-horse field. Breaking from the outside stall in the seven-furlong race, he had a trouble-free trip and drew clear with style in the final furlong.

“We’ve always been pretty high on him,” Baffert said. “He’s been hyped-up pretty good now. I think he’ll be fine stretching out – he’s got a pretty good mind – but you never know until they do it.”

[ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays]

In contrast to Flashback, Den’s Legacy has plenty of experience. The Lewis marks the 10th start of his career, and he comes off a second-place finish to the highly regarded Goldencents in the Sham Stakes on Jan. 5.

“He’s a tough horse,” Baffert said. “He keeps rolling right along. He ran a game race to Goldencents. That horse could be the best 3-year-old in the country. He’s fast.”

Goldencents is sitting this race out, awaiting next month’s San Felipe, but his trainer, Doug O’Neill, has the likely second choice in He’s Had Enough, who was second to champion Shanghai Bobby in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Nov. 3. In his only start since then, He’s Had Enough was fifth Dec. 15 in the CashCall Futurity, a race in which Den’s Legacy was third. Mario Gutierrez will ride He’s Had Enough for the fourth straight race on Saturday.

“He’s doing well, but it looks like Baffert’s going to control the pace,” O’Neill said as he watched his horses train Thursday morning. “I was disappointed with his last race. He doesn’t bring it every day.

“The good thing is Mario has gotten to know He’s Had Enough well. And, coming into this race, we’ve asked more of him in his works. We’ve been much more strict. We’ll see if that helps.”

The race longshot is Little Jerry, who was eighth in the CashCall Futurity after a late-running win against maidens in his debut at Hollywood Park on Nov. 18. Both those races were on Cushion Track.

“He didn’t run very well, but he came back with a bunch of that synthetic stuff in his face,” trainer Richard Baltas said. “He was coughing, had mucus. He’s been working really well since. This is a good spot to try him. Four horses, on dirt.”

The Lewis is a Road to the Derby qualifying race, awarding points to the top four on a 10-4-2-1 basis.