By Noah Joseph
Horse racing is a sport full of “what ifs?” One could easily come up with a list of them. The most commonly used “what if” in racing often relates to a horse’s career. “What if this horse competed longer than it did?” Some horses have had great careers end early for a variety of reasons. Canterbury Park was home to a horse who was destined for local legend status every time she stepped on the track, yet we only got to see her for a short amount of time. This is the story of the brief but brilliant career of A.J. Bakes.
A.J. Bakes was bred in Minnesota by Bert and Sandy Dahlberg’s Dahlberg Ranch. Her sire was Boundary, a multiple graded stakes winner who is best known as the sire of 2008 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown. Her dam was named Linens N Lace, who competed at Canterbury in the early 2000s, finishing third in two stakes races. As a yearling, A.J. Bakes sold for just $3,000 at the Minnesota-bred Yearling Sale to John Baker, who co-owned her along with Bob Knox. The filly got her name from the initials of owner John Baker’s children, Annie and Jack, while the Bakes part was based upon the last name of Baker. A.J. Bakes was trained by Todd Hoffrogge, who sent her out for her career debut on May 25, 2007, and she looked good, winning by over four lengths. After a second place finish in her first stakes try at Prairie Meadows, A.J. Bakes returned to Canterbury and won an allowance race, beating the boys in the process. Her final start of the year came in the Northern Lights Debutante on Minnesota Festival of Champions Day. This was going to be a big test for her, as heavy rains turned the track into a mudpit, and A.J. Bakes had never raced on a sloppy track before. Any fears of the race being a challenge for her instantly disappeared the moment the gates opened, as she took the lead right from the start and never looked back, winning by more than 11 lengths (pictured above). Scott Stevens was aboard for the victory, as well as all of her other starts that year and throughout her career. That dominating victory helped propel A.J. Bakes to be named Champion Two-Year-Old at Canterbury that season. 2007 was a great year for A.J. Bakes. Would 2008 be the same?
At age three, A.J. Bakes. looked to continue her winning ways, and she started in an amazing way. She made her season debut in the Lady Slipper Stakes, her first start ever against older fillies and mares. But the difference in age competition didn’t seem to faze A.J. Bakes, as she broke sharply and made the lead right from the get go and went on to win by 1 ¾ lengths over the longshot Hills of Ireland. After her Lady Slipper score, A.J. Bakes was entered to try the turf and two turns for the first time. However rain forced the race to be moved to the main track, and although she finished second and gained experience going two turns, she was beaten by 16 lengths.
A.J. Bakes did eventually get to try the turf in the Princess Elaine Stakes, and needless to say, it did not go well. She started well and used her early speed to grab the lead and led for much of the race, but by the time she turned for home, she began to fade and ended up finishing sixth, the first time she ever finished out of the top two in her career. This disappointing run did have a silver lining, as she gained more experience going a route distance, and that would help set her up for her next start in the Minnesota Oaks. This time, she broke sharply and went to the front, but let the favored Pretty as a Smile get the lead for a part of the race. A.J. Bakes then got back ahead of Pretty as a Smile and soon turned her away for good, going on to win the Oaks by 9 ½ lengths in one of the most dominating performances in race history.
Her final start of the year was in the Minnesota Distaff Sprint Championship and most people thought she would win with ease. But she stumbled badly at the start and could not recover. All she could do was simply follow the field and ended up finishing ninth and last in what would be the final start of her career. But when it was all said and done, A.J. Bakes was named Champion Three-Year-Old Filly at Canterbury that year.
After her racing days were over, A.J. Bakes was sold for $14,000 and became a broodmare in New Mexico. Three of her foals became winners and one of them even won a stakes race. In total, A.J. Bakes raced nine times, with only one start coming outside of Minnesota. She won five times with three of those victories coming in stakes races, finished in the top three seven times, and earned over $140,000. One can only imagine what might have been had she not been retired. She could have been one of the greatest to ever compete at Canterbury. But her career, despite it being very brief, was nothing short of amazing.