Trainer Bob Baffert ran his record number of wins in the Pat O’Brien Stakes to eight Aug. 27 when Juddmonte’s Laurel River upset Eastern invader Speaker’s Corner at Del Mar.
Instead of nominating Laurel River for a chance against Flightline in the Sept. 3 TVG Pacific Classic at 1 1/4 miles, Baffert elected to race the lightly raced runner into the seven-furlong, $252,500 O’Brien.
“If Flightline was not in the race — he’s not ready for a horse like him yet,” said Baffert.
Laurel River was ready to encounter top-notch sprinters and milers in the O’Brien, which offers a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series berth to the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Perhaps recalling invader Spendarella’s victory the week before in the Del Mar Oaks, bettors made Carter Handicap winner Speaker’s Corner, trained by Bill Mott, the 11-10 favorite in the O’Brien. Bing Crosby Stakes winner American Theorem was the 5.10-1 second choice, with Laurel River the 6.90-1 fourth choice in the field of 10.
When the starting gate opened, Speaker’s Corner came out of post-position 8 well for jockey Mike Smith and took the early lead. Principe Carlo moved up inside to engage the favorite, grabbing the advantage briefly. However, Speaker’s Corner edged back ahead.
Jockey Juan Hernandez had Laurel River in fourth. Going into the turn, Laurel River was behind three horses: Speaker’s Corner, Defunded (also trained by Baffert) on the outside, and Principe Carlo on the inside. Hernandez elected to point Laurel River between Principe Carlo and Speaker’s Corner.
“He broke real sharp, but then he relaxed,” Hernandez said. “I just tried to stay with them early. He went between horses without a problem.”
Laurel River responded bravely, and once he passed Principe Carlo and Speaker’s Corner, he set sail for the finish line, widening his margin ultimately to 3 3/4 lengths and stopping the timer in 1:21.27.
“He has a lot of speed, but he’s going to be much more effective around two turns,” said Baffert.
American Theorem, who had to race very wide, just as he did in the Crosby, closed ground to get second by three-quarters of a length over 21-1 Senor Buscador, with Speaker’s Corner a tiring fourth.
Smith said that Speaker’s Corner “got real hot in the warm-up, then he was acting up again in the gate—he just wasn’t a happy horse today.”
Juddmonte bred Laurel River, a 4-year-old son of Into Mischief out of Calm Water, by Empire Maker, in Kentucky. Calm Water, also a Juddmonte homebred, is a full-sister to multiple Grade 1 winner and millionaire Emollient. Mott trained Calm Water and Emollient for Juddmonte.
Laurel River broke his maiden in his second start and then ran second in the 2021 Lazaro Barrera Stakes at Santa Anita Park. Last summer at Del Mar, he won his second start at the meeting by 11 1/2 lengths before going to the sidelines “with a little issue, and we gave him the time,” said Baffert.
Laurel River was away from the races for almost 11 months before scoring in a mile allowance-optional claiming race at Del Mar July 31 prior to the O’Brien.
Fed Biz in 2013 was Baffert’s most recent previous O’Brien winner in a run of five consecutive scores in the race for the trainer. The Hall of Famer also won the race in 2000-’01.