ARCADIA, Calif. — Midnight Hawk battled Kristo around the track before taking the lead coming out of the stretch in a 1¾-length victory Saturday in the $100,000 Sham Stakes, an early prep race on the road to the Kentucky Derby.
The 3-year-old gray colt is trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert and co-owned by Chicago Blackhawks coach Joel Quenneville and newly hired Atlanta Falcons offensive line coach Mike Tice, who was on hand at Santa Anita.
“Anytime you win it’s exciting in anything, tiddlywinks, horse racing, football,” Tice said. “We’re loving every minute of it.”
Midnight Hawk ran a mile in 1:36.48 and paid $2.80 and $2.10 as the 2-5 favorite in the field of four that was reduced by the scratches of Life Is a Joy and Top Fortitute. Midnight Hawk earned 10 points in the system used by Churchill Downs to decide the 20-horse field for the Kentucky Derby on May 3.
Kristo returned $2.20, while Ontology was another 3¼ lengths back in third. There was no show wagering.
“The winner was much too fast,” said Rafael Bejarano, who rode Kristo. “He lost ground on both turns and still beat me.”
Midnight Hawk easily won his debut by 6¼ lengths in December at now-closed Betfair Hollywood Park. But Baffert made an adjustment for the colt’s second start, removing the blinkers he’d worn to keep focused.
“He’s still a little green, but I liked him a lot better without the blinkers,” he said.
Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and Midnight Hawk dueled with Bejarano and Kristo, who sped to the early lead. Midnight Hawk took a short lead on the backstretch before Kristo put a head back in front into the second turn.
Midnight Hawk inched away approaching midstretch.
“It kind of turned into a match race,” Smith said. “More so than winning I wanted to find out if he could go long. If you can’t go long, there’s no use worrying about anything else. He proved he could go long.”
Like Baffert, Smith sees improvements that Midnight Hawk could make. The crowd noise startled the colt into changing paths to the rail deep in the stretch.
“He thinks they’re yelling right at him and gets scared,” the jockey said. “If he couldn’t see them today (with the blinkers), it would be even worse.”
Baffert said he’d consider stuffing cotton into Midnight Hawk’s ears to stifle the sound.
Typical of this time of year, Baffert was noncommittal about future plans for Midnight Hawk, whose sire Midnight Lute was a two-time Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner who was named for retired Arizona basketball coach Lute Olson.
“We’ll let him tell us when he’s ready to roll,” Baffert said. “He’s a big, heavy horse, and he can handle a lot. He’s so heavy, I’d rather run him than work him. So far, so good, but we’ll just take baby steps as we go and just have fun with him.”
Midnight Hawk was bred in Kentucky by longtime Baffert client Mike Pegram, who recruited Quenneville and Tice as minority owners along with John Sikura’s Hill ‘n’ Dale Equine Holdings, Inc., and Mike Kitchen.
Noting the NFL and NHL coaches in the group, Baffert said, laughing, “Not one of them has tried to tell me how to train the horse. That’s a good thing.”
Tice added, “He’s being polite. I can’t help myself.”
Quenneville and his Stanley Cup champion Blackhawks were in Montreal on Saturday night for a game, but he had planned to watch the race. When Midnight Hawk won in December, Quenneville was also north of the border.
“I said, ‘Every race you got to go to Canada,’” Tice said. “He said, ‘That’s OK, I’m from Canada.’”
Tice, the former Minnesota Vikings head coach and Chicago Bears assistant, was hired last week by the Falcons after being out of the game this season. In August, he correctly picked the winner of six straight races at Del Mar and won $100,796 on a $128 ticket.
“I had my year off, hit my Pick Six, went to the Breeders’ Cup, back to work,” he said.
Kory Owens, who trains Top Fortitude, said he scratched the colt because of a readjustment on a back shoe earlier Saturday.
In the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes, 2-1 favorite Blueskiesnrainbows won by 1¼ lengths under Martin Pedroza.
The winner ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.17 and paid $6.20, $4.20 and $2.80.
Majestic Harbor returned $15.20 and $5.20. Drill, trained by Baffert and ridden by Smith, won a photo for third and paid $3.20 to show.