03/20/2016 10:57AM

Watchmaker: Despite flaws, Cupid displays great talent

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Cupid ran faster winning the Rebel than older horses did in the Razorback and Azeri on the same card.

When Cupid figures what this racing thing is all about, he’s going to be pretty darn good.

Truth is, Cupid is already darn good. He proved that by decisively beating 13 opponents in Saturday’s Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park. But Cupid also did enough things wrong in the Rebel to create the tantalizing prospect of how good he might actually be when he finally does put it all together. As it is, however, that Cupid overcame difficulty in the Rebel of his own making in just his fourth career start, in his stakes debut, and off only a maiden victory, was impressive.

It was a little surprising that the apparent strategy for Cupid in the Rebel was to go early given how kindly he settled early in his maiden score last month at Santa Anita in his first attempt at two turns. But after breaking slowly, Cupid was sent and sent hard while he still had a hole between opponents, and before the field would have inevitably collapsed toward the inside, blocking his path.

As a result, Cupid wound up getting his first quarter-mile in 22.96 seconds, which was the fastest opening split of the eight route races on Saturday’s card, faster even than solid older stakes horses went in the Razorback and Azeri stakes.

If Cupid had given way in the late stages of the Rebel after being sent into a first quarter like that and after getting left at the start, he would have had a thoroughly legitimate excuse. But when you also factor in how Cupid ducked in during his run through the  upper stretch out of greenness, and how he was seriously challenged in deep stretch by the stakes-seasoned and capable Whitmore, Cupid had plenty of reason to capitulate late.

Instead, Cupid was almost emboldened by it all. Even if you think Whitmore might have distance limitations – I actually think he might wind up being highly successful as a closer in extended one-turn races – you had to be taken with the way Cupid turned him back late after being so lazy out of the gate and goofy at the top of the stretch. I mean, Cupid was going away at the finish of the Rebel (he also galloped out with gusto once again), and his final time was faster than those solid older horses ran in the Razorback and Azeri just two and three races earlier.

Cupid continued an otherworldly run in graded stakes at Oaklawn for his trainer, Bob Baffert. Before Saturday, Baffert had 17 starters over the last five years ship in for a graded stakes start at Oaklawn. Nine of them won (53 percent), and they weren’t all tiny prices, as evidenced by the $2 return on investment on these shippers of $3.47. Baffert’s numbers in such situations with 3-year-olds is even more striking. Before Cupid, he was 8 for 13 (62 percent) for a $4.30 ROI, an ROI that was knocked down by American Pharoah when he shipped in and won the Rebel last year at 2-5.

Obviously, Baffert has sent very live horses to stakes at Oaklawn. But another factor at work here, one that admittedly might not sound politically correct, is Baffert is exposing and exploiting the talent disparity between the horse population at his base of Santa Anita and stakes performers based in the Midwest/South.

Quick Saturday notes:

•I leaned against him in the Razorback, but it was still nice to see Upstart win for trainer Rick Violette in his first start since his unsuccessful outing in the Pennsylvania Derby. Upstart is a classy horse, and it is always good to have that kind around.

That said, I just wonder where Upstart’s form goes from here. Upstart is a horse who has always run big fresh off works. He won his racing debut. His win in last year’s Holy Bull off a layoff was one of his very best races. Even Upstart’s third to American Pharoah in the Haskell last summer was a good effort, and given his debacle of an outing in the Kentucky Derby, the Haskell was his first representative race in four months.

•It is tremendously sporting that Untapable is still racing two years removed from her Eclipse Award-winning 3-year-old filly campaign. So there is no joy taken in noting she is significantly removed from her championship form. Untapable had a perfect trip in the Azeri, and was still nailed by Call Pat.

•Tara’s Tango’s value increased exponentially with her win in the Grade 1 Santa Margarita, and I suspect the addition of blinkers assisted in her determined effort. Still, it’s hard to escape the feeling that the older dirt female division is just marking time until Beholder returns.

•Stonetastic finally got her victory going seven furlongs in the Inside Information, but it is not a win without an asterisk. The main track Saturday was profoundly speed favoring, and the speedy Stonetastic reaped the full benefits of the bias.