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Mucho Gusto wins Robert Lewis for Baffert at Santa Anita

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Bob Baffert’s second-string colt won a Kentucky Derby prep race. Don’t discount Mucho Gusto.

Last year, Baffert’s top Derby hopeful McKinzie got injured. Second-stringer Justify went on to sweep the Derby, Preakness and Belmont, giving Baffert a second Triple Crown in three years.

Mucho Gusto won the $150,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by 4} lengths at Santa Anita on Saturday.

“This is the time of year when you want to start getting excited about something,” Baffert said in the winner’s circle during a brief break between drenching rain. “We’re still dreaming in Technicolor.”

Ridden by Joe Talamo, Mucho Gusto ran 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track in 1:41.81. The 3-year-old chestnut colt paid $3.20, $2.20 and $2.10 as the 3-5 favorite.

“He’s a 3-year-old but he feels like an older horse,” Talamo said. “He’s got a great mind. He absolutely loved the mud today.”

Mucho Gusto was purchased for $625,000 at the Timonium sale near the Maryland home of owner Michael Petersen. Baffert and Petersen saw the colt work in the slop before the sale and “he just smoked over it,” the trainer said.

“I texted Bob to see if I should come out for the race and he was very confident,” Petersen said.

Gunmetal Gray returned $2.40 and $2.10, while Easy Shot was another half-length back in third and paid $2.60 to show.

Magnificent McCool was fourth. Kid Cantina was pulled up at the top of the backstretch. Nolo Contesto was scratched, reducing the field to five.

Baffert earned his seventh win in the Lewis, named for his late client with whom he won the 1997 Kentucky Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm.

Mucho Gusto has three wins in four career starts. He’s a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Mucho Macho Man.

“He got to sit off the pace, which was good. They have to learn to do that,” Baffert said. “I was really happy with Joe. He rode him with a lot of confidence, like he was a good horse.”

Baffert saddled 1-2 favorite McKinzie to a second-place finish in the $200,000 San Pasqual Stakes. The 4-year-old colt got edged near the wire by Battle of Midway after they battled through the stretch.

In other Kentucky Derby preps Saturday:

– Harvey Wallbanger scored an upset at 29-1 odds in the $350,000 Holy Bull Stakes, winning by a length at Gulfstream Park.

Ridden by Brian Hernandez Jr., Harvey Wallbanger ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.69 and paid $61.20 to win.

Sent off at 99-1, Everfast finished second. Previously unbeaten Maximus Mischief, the odds-on favorite, was third.

Trained by Ken McPeek, Harvey Wallbanger was purchased for $50,000 as a yearling. He is named for the 1970s drink that contains vodka, orange juice and an Italian liqueur.

“Now he’s a graded stakes winner,” co-owner Harold Lerner said. “I hope everybody has a Harvey Wallbanger later.”

– Tax surged up the rail to overtake Our Braintrust and Not That Brady in deep stretch and win the $250,000 Withers by a head at Aqueduct.

Ridden by Junior Alvarado, Tax ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.27. The gelding paid $6.20 to win as the 2-1 favorite trained by Danny Gargan.

Tax earned 10 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby. He more than tripled his career earnings to $186,300 and has never been worse than third in four starts.

Not That Brady was second, a neck ahead of Our Braintrust, trained by Mark Casse.

Casse lodged an objection against Not That Brady for the bump in the stretch, but there was no change to the order of finish.

New England’s last thoroughbred horse track winds down

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BOSTON — New England’s last thoroughbred horse track, Boston’s Suffolk Downs, is hosting its final live races this weekend, but it’s not clear what comes next for the industry, which continues to receive millions of dollars in casino tax subsidies.

Sterling Suffolk Racecourse, the company that operates the once grand, 84-year old track, has been running a handful of summertime races since losing out on its bid to build a resort casino on the property in 2014.

Two years ago, it sold the property – where the Depression-era champion Seabiscuit was discovered by the team that launched him into the limelight – to a real estate developer that plans to build apartments, condominiums and offices on the 161-acre property straddling Boston and Revere.

But Sterling Suffolk still wants to remain in the racing business and is betting on legislative approval this year to make that happen.

The company has proposed restoring the Great Barrington Fairgrounds near the New York state line while keeping its more lucrative simulcast and online betting operations in the Boston area. Current regulations don’t allow for a state-licensed race operator to split its operations this way.

The company is also seeking permission to tap into a special state fund for the horse racing industry in order to make improvements at the track. It also wants to extend the length of its racing license from one year to 10 years.

The Race Horse Development Fund is funded by gambling revenues from the state’s three casinos – Encore Boston Harbor, MGM Springfield and Plainridge Park. But under state regulations, the money must be dedicated largely to horse racing purses and benefits for industry workers. Capital projects like improving a racetrack aren’t permitted uses.

“It doesn’t do the horsemen any good if there’s money building up in that fund and they don’t have any place to run and compete for it,” Chip Tuttle, chief operating officer for Sterling Suffolk, said Friday.

Restoring the Great Barrington track would cost up to $15 million and require extending the length of the half-mile track, as well as renovating the grandstand, he said. The track, which hasn’t hosted horse races since 1998, could be ready by next fall.

“Great Barrington works because it’s a more reasonable option than starting from scratch,” Tuttle said. “But it’s not really practical for us to take on the complete refurbishment of that property unless we have a longer term license and the certainty that comes with it.”

At least one industry group opposes the idea.

The Massachusetts Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association backs a separate bill that would require licensed racing operators host at least 60 race days a year. Sterling Suffolk’s bill would require at least one race day annually and Tuttle said the company only envisions hosting a handful of race days initially at Great Barrington.

“Not until we get a full time track will we see the benefits of the horse racing industry in terms of horse breeding, farms, agriculture and open space,” said Bill Lagorio, the organization’s president. “Folks are raising horses in New York and running them in Massachusetts for a few weeks. That’s not doing anything for this state.”

Tuttle says Lagorio’s group is an “outlier” and does not represent the majority of the region’s horse owners and breeders.

Two other industry groups – New England Horsemen’s Benevolent and Protective Association and the Massachusetts Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association – support the proposal, he noted.

The competing proposals and other bills related to the horse racing industry are being considered at a Statehouse hearing Monday.

In the meantime, casino revenues continue to accrue in the Race Horse Development Fund.

To date, nearly $56 million has been paid out — $21 million to the thoroughbred industry and another $34 million to the separate harness racing industry, according to Massachusetts Gaming Commission data.

The harness racing industry continues to run regular races at Plainridge Park’s track and has steadily spent down most of its funding. But the thoroughbred industry, which has long been anchored at Suffolk Downs, has nearly $13 million in its coffers, and growing.

Breeders’ Cup to stay at Santa Anita this year

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LOS ANGELES — The Breeders’ Cup world championships will remain at Santa Anita this fall after 30 horses died during the Southern California track’s recent meet.

The Breeders’ Cup board of directors unanimously decided to keep the two-day event at the track in Arcadia for a record 10th time on Nov. 1-2. The board made its decision at a meeting Thursday in Lexington, Kentucky.

Craig Fravel, president and CEO of the Breeders’ Cup, says the ownership of Santa Anita along with other groups has made “meaningful and effective reforms” in recent months to improve safety. He says the Breeders’ Cup embraces those reforms and will devote time and energy in the coming months to further those efforts.

The 30 horse deaths occurred during Santa Anita’s winter-spring meet that began Dec. 26 and ended Sunday.