03/21/2014 3:00PM

Sunland Park: Midnight Hawk, Chitu give Baffert hot hand in rich Sunland Derby

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Shigeki Kikkawa
Midnight Hawk is one of two strong contenders for trainer Bob Baffert in Sunday's $800,000 Sunland Derby.

The Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Park Derby has carved out a legitimate spot on the Triple Crown trail since its purse was boosted significantly in 2003. The field for Sunday’s renewal drives that point home, as four of the nine runners set to start hail from two of the biggest names in racing, trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.

Baffert has the potential top two choices in Midnight Hawk and Chitu, who both ran second in Grade 2 races last out at Santa Anita. Pletcher will counter with Gulfstream Park winners Commissioner and Global Strike. Both trainers also have starters in the $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks on the undercard, and each cited a number of reasons for targeting the richest Thoroughbred racing card in New Mexico.

“Sunland Park’s produced a Derby winner and an Oaks winner,” said Baffert, referring to Mine That Bird and Plum Pretty.

Pletcher said the race’s timing and distribution of 85 preference points for the Kentucky Derby – divided to the first four finishers on a scale of 50-20-10-5 – add to the Sunland Derby’s appeal.

[Sunland Derby: Get PPs, watch Sunday's card live]

“By running here, we’re putting ourselves in a position, if we’re good enough, to win enough points to get in,” he said, “and if we don’t run as well as we want, there’s still time to look at other options late.”

Midnight Hawk could go favored in the Sunland Derby, a 1 1/8-mile race that earned graded status in 2010. The field also includes Tanzanite Cat, the winner of the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn in January; Rebranded, who was second in the local prep, the $120,220 Mine That Bird Derby; and Garen, a maiden winner at Santa Anita and a half-brother to 2006 Horse of the Year Invasor.

Midnight Hawk captured the Grade 3 Sham at Santa Anita in his second career start Jan. 11 and will enter Sunday’s race off a runner-up finish to California Chrome in the Grade 2 San Felipe on March 8.

“He ran a big race,” Baffert said. “He hooked into a bear last time. He’s come back and worked well and shipped well.”

Midnight Hawk is a son of Midnight Lute, who sired last year’s Sunland Derby winner, Govenor Charlie, who was also trained by Baffert. Midnight Hawk could get a tracking trip from post 7. He is owned by a partnership that includes Hill ‘n’ Dale Equine Holdings.

Chitu finished second in the Grade 2 Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita in his last start on Feb. 8. He was prominent throughout and was beaten just a half-length by Candy Boy.

“He ran hard in that last race, and we gave him a little extra time,” said Baffert, who trains for Tanma Corporation.

Chitu, a son of Henny Hughes, will break from post 9 under regular rider Martin Garcia.

“He has a lot of speed,” Baffert said. “His weapon is his speed, and we’re not going to take that away from him.

“The pace is going to make the race. I think it’ll either be won on the front end or somebody will come from way behind. It looks like there’s lots of speed.”

A contested pace might work to the benefit of Global Strike, said Pletcher. Global Strike won a 1 1/8-mile maiden special weight in his last start Feb. 22.

“He got on the lead early and was just waiting on horses throughout the race,” Pletcher said. “He’s better if he has a target to run at. If everyone shows up that’s supposed to show up, there should be plenty of pace. He’s better with someone to stalk than being on the lead.”

Javier Castellano has the mount on Global Strike, a son of Smart Strike who races for his breeder, Stonestreet Stables.

Commissioner, a son of A.P. Indy owned by WinStar Farm, will add blinkers after finishing sixth in last month’s Grade  2 Fountain of Youth. Prior to the start, he won a Gulfstream optional claimer over Top Billing.

“He truly wants a mile and a quarter,” Pletcher said. “All A.P. Indy.”

John Velazquez has the mount from post 3.

Tanzanite Cat arrived at Sunland on Monday from Oaklawn. He will break from post 5, under Norberto Arroyo Jr.

“He’s probably not going to be on the lead with Chitu,” said Cody Autrey, who trains Tanzanite Cat. “I think he’ll be one, two, three going down that backstretch, just hopefully get that comfortable spot where he gets the chance to relax and make his run.”

Rebranded will add blinkers for Justin Evans, who is the runaway leader in the trainer standings at Sunland. The horse rallied for second in the Mine That Bird Derby under Ry Eikleberry, who has the mount again Sunday for owner Tony Pennington.

The Sunland Derby anchors a card of seven stakes worth $1,405,000. Jay Privman, national correspondent for Daily Racing Form, will conduct an ontrack handicapping seminar at 11 a.m. Mountain. The 12-race Thoroughbred card will be streamed live at drf.com.