Hoppertunity knocks

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Bob Baffert watched the race from a suite at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena as he took in a key Pac-12 college football showdown Saturday between two rivals. Across the country in Louisville, co-owner Mike Pegram watched from the stands at Churchill Downs. They both saw the same thing, an improving colt redeem himself at the place many thought he’d be earlier this spring.

“You never look back in this business,” a beaming Pegram said in the Churchill winner’s circle after Hoppertunity led a charge of 3-year-olds in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap. “If you look back in this business you’re ready to retire. And we’re not ready to retire.”

Hoppertunity, who missed his chance at the Kentucky Derby in May when a bruised left front foot knocked him out of the opening jewel of the Triple Crown, took command in the Clark with a little more than a furlong to run and held of a late charge from Protonico to win by a half-length. Constitution, the Florida Derby winner who also missed the spring classics with an injury, finished third to lead a one-two-three finish for 3-year-olds.

“All I know is that stretch has been a killer for me but that horse was bred to run a mile-and-an-eighth and a mile-and-a-quarter,” Baffert, watching Saturday’s UCLA-Stanford football game, said by telephone after Hopppertunity’s win in the $551,000 Clark.

Assistant trainer Jim Barnes deputized for Baffert at Churchill as Hoppertunity won for the third time in seven career starts, all this season. He burst on the Triple Crown scene earlier this year with a victory in the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn then chased eventual Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome home in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby.

Co-owned by Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, Hoppertunity missed the classics and didn’t race again until a late October allowance-optional at Santa Anita. The son of Any Given finished second behind stablemate Pimpernel in that 7-furlong race, setting up his run in the Clark.

Baffert said before the race that he felt his horse didn’t really need his last race, but that he felt the distance was too short. He wanted Hoppertunity to run a longer distance, which he reemphasized after winning the race.

The victory gave Baffert a bid of redemption, too, after finishing second with superstar veteran gelding Game On Dude a year ago.

Jockey Martin Garcia, who rode Hoppertunity to victory, was all smiles after the race and agreed that the 7 furlongs last time out may have been a bit short.

“It had been a while since he’d run,” Garcia said. “The day he ran seven-eighths, I think it was a little short for him. I knew today was going to be a really, really big race for him. We know that he’s a really good horse.”

The jockeys aboard the second- and third-place finishers were satisfied with their mount’s performances.

Joe Bravo, aboard runner-up Protonico, congratulated the winner for his performance and believes that the colt he rode also has a bright future.

“I take my hat of to Hoppertunity,” Bravo said. “Todd (Pletcher) knew we had a nice horse, so he ran this 3-year-old against the older horses and look what he had done. He’s got a big future, this 3-year-old.”

Javier Castellano rode Constitution, making his second start since late March, said very similar things about the Tapit colt and was very proud of the performance.

“We just got beat today,” Castellano said. “I’m proud of the way he did it. He’s a good horse, he’s a strong horse and I think in the future he will make a very great horse.”

After the first three, Pick of the Litter, Easter Gift, Prayer for Relief, Departing, Looking Cool and Knights Nation rounded out the field.