Midcourt Carries Kobe’s Colors Into The Santa Anita Winner’s Circle

Victor Espinoza rode back toward the finish line, in purple and gold finery. He was returning from a nice Saturday drive. Midcourt, the 4-year-old, lunged to the front in Santa Anita’s San Pasqual Stakes and never slowed down, winning by a widening three-and-a-half lengths. The physicality was obvious. But Lee Searing, the steel executive from Rancho Cucamonga, saw the mentality.

“We’ve named our horses after basketball and the Lakers for years,” Searing said. “Those last few years, the main reason I went to those games was to see Kobe.”

Bryant remains inescapable, even here, even six days on. A longshot in the fifth race at Santa Anita was named Majestic Gigi, and, sure enough, she wore No. 2 and was even leading at the top of the stretch. Midcourt was matched up with Roadster, once a Kentucky Derby winter favorite for Bob Baffert. The favorite was Restrainedvengeance, who thought he had Midcourt in his sights but practically needed binoculars at the end.

With John Shirreffs training, Midcourt has won five of his past six races.

“He’s a goofball,” Searing said, “He just didn’t want to train. If you could stand beside the barn and see the little things John puts him through, it’s amazing. Now he can’t wait to get out there and compete. And we gelded him, which helped. I’ve only had one other horse in the Santa Anita Handicap, so this is exciting. This is the best he’s ever run.”

But Searing also thought of Kobe’s Back, who won five times in 26 races for him and brought in more than $1.1 million. In 2016 he won two stakes races at Santa Anita within a month. Searing never met Bryant but he did get a small note, relayed through a friend. “You gave him a good name,” it read.

Kobe’s Back also ran in a Breeders Cup sprint at Keeneland, and in 2015 he and Gary Stevens lost by a neck to Wild Dude in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship.

“If he’d won that one he’d be a stallion in Kentucky,” Searing said. “Now he’s a stallion in Maryland. But a lot of people have been asking me about him this week.”

Roadster was a no-factor sixth in the San Pasqual, but Baffert, as usual, had already had his moments. A 3-year-old filly named Auberge won the third race, and, three races later, Kentucky Derby contender Thousand Words brought it home in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes over Royal Act, also owned by Searing, and High Velocity, another Baffert horse.

That was Baffert’s 3,000th win as a thoroughbred trainer. He ranks 32nd all time, but he is seventh in win percentage (23 percent) and sixth in finishing win, place or show (53%). “It’s just a number,” Baffert said, when it clearly was not. He later said he was thinking about 3,000 when his horse was beginning to take control on the far turn.

“Thousand Words, 3,000 wins, I mean, you can’t make this stuff up,” Baffert said. “And to do it in a race named after one of my all-time favorite owners (Robert B. Lewis) just makes it more special.

“I can’t remember the first one. But I do remember a horse named Presidents Summit.”

In late 1988 Baffert was still just a quarter-horse cowboy from southern Arizona. “I was struggling,” he said. His friend Bob Baedeker pointed him to Presidents Summit, who won a claiming race.

“I’m trying to run down to the winners circle, I’ve got my cowboy hat on,” Baffert said. “I really needed a horse like that.”

Presidents Summit would win twice more. Pretty soon Baffert got better talent, and one thing led to another, and another thing led to 15 wins in Triple Crown races, and two Triple Crowns. Thousand Words is now 3-for-3, by margins of a neck, a half-length, and three-fourths of a length. “He won’t blow you away in the middle of the week,” Baffert said. “He’s a hard horse to ride, because he doesn’t always want to work. But he shows up when the race starts.”

Flavien Prat did the honors. A few minutes later he rode United to victory in the San Marcos, for 4-year-olds on grass. United shook up Santa Anita in November when he made Bricks and Mortar, the 2019 Horse of the Year, dig as hard as he could to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf by a head.

Meanwhile, Searing has a buzzer-beating horse that could be playing well into the fall. But he was already looking ahead. “We have a filly named Lady Mamba, too,” Searing said. “So we’ve got to breed Kobe’s Back to Lady Mamba. I mean, that’s going to happen.”

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