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Justique returns to seaside oval to recapture winning form

Justique came from 12 lengths back to win the Desi Arnaz and The Chosen Vron defeated a small but talented field in the Cary Grant on Saturday in a pair of seven-furlong, $100,000 co-featured stakes at Del Mar.

Favored Justique ($5) finished 2¼ lengths ahead of Blessed Touch in a race for 2-year-old fillies on the main track.

The Chosen Vron then came close to the track record for the distance to beat favorite Big City Lights in a second straight match in the Grant Stakes for older California-bred horses.

After a quarter-mile, Justique was a distant last in the seven-filly field before taking off under Victor Espinoza and going outside the field on the far turn.

“I don’t try to encourage her away from the gate,” Espinoza said of Justique’s slow start. “I just let her do her thing. I just want her to be happy. The idea is to just get her into her rhythm … to let her do it her way.”

“I didn’t get a good look at the break,” said trainer John Shirreffs. “You always wonder when she’s got to close a lot of ground … will she be able to do it? When she started making up ground, I thought ‘Victor is going to time it’ and she kept going.”

“Justique started to pick it up at the half-mile pole,” said Espinoza. “When she wants to, she is very quick. I moved up next to those horses on the turn and in two or three jumps, she was in front. She’s something.”

The Chosen Vron covered the seven furlongs under Hector Berrios in 1 minute, 20.66 seconds — just off the track record of 1:20 set by Solar Launch just over 32 years ago — pulling away in the stretch to win what was essentially a match race with Big City Lights (Juan Hernandez) by 3¼ lengths.

“He went to the front so easily,” said Berrios. “He felt light and was running freely. On the turn, I had to put some pressure on Big City Lights, so I really got him running. He just kept going from there.”

“I just wanted Hector to have fun,” said trainer Eric Kruljac. “It sure looks like (The Chosen Vron) is getting back to form. I was pleased with the way the race set up.”

Numbers favor Baffert

Trainer Bob Baffert will have half the field — including the top three, morning-line picks — today in the first graded stakes of the fall meeting.

Baffert’s Havnameltdown, Newgate and Hard to Figure headline the six-horse field in the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes, a $100,000 seven-furlong test for 2-year-olds.

Havnameltdown is the 6-5 morning-line favorite. The son of Uncaptured raced three times during Del Mar’s summer meeting. He won two races, including the Grade III Best Pal Stakes, before running second behind Cave Rock in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity.

“He likes Del Mar,” said Baffert of Havnameltdown, who will have Hernandez up today, “and he might be a one-turn horse. I think he likes this distance.”

Newgate ran fourth in the Del Mar Futurity then finished fifth in the Grade I Breeders’ Futurity on Oct. 8 at Keeneland. The son of Into Mischief will again have John Velazquez aboard and is listed at 5-2.

“He always looks like he’s going to run a big race and gets beat,” said Baffert. “I think he might also favor one turn and this distance.”

Hard to Figure has a win and two thirds in three starts and will have Flavien Prat up. Hard to Figure drew the inside post, which Baffert doesn’t like.”

Baffert said he has no solid plan for this trio or his deep stable of 2-year-olds.

“With young horses, the first thing is you have to keep them healthy,” said Baffert. “I don’t plan that far ahead. I plan around them. They tell me what’s next.”

Notable

Today’s fourth race, a six-furlong, $75,000 allowance, features Grade II Santa Anita Sprint champion Howbeit (Mike Smith), former Kentucky Derby hopeful Forbidden Kingdom (Hernandez) and Ginobili (Drayden Van Dyke).

Ginoboli will be making his debut for trainer Peter Miller and making his first start of 2022 after winning the Grade II Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar before running second in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile behind Life Is Good.

Espinoza’s win in the Arnaz was his 120th stakes win at Del Mar, tying him for second on the track’s all-time list of jockey stakes wins.

Center is a freelance writer.