Minnesota Oaks and Derby

by JIM WELLS

A.J. Bakes.

Kind of sounds like a baseball player, doesn’t it.

Has the same sort of ring as, say, J.D. Drew.

Except that A.J. and J.D. are worlds apart.

A.J. performs at Canterbury Park.

J.D., the former St. Paul Saint, plays for the Boston Red Sox.

There are other differences, too.

J.D.’s first name is actually David Jonathan, so the initials are reversed, presumably because he doesn’t want anyone thinking plays music for a living.

A.J. , on the other hand, got her first name from the initials of the son and daughter of one of the horse’s owners: Annie and Jack. Bakes is merely a reference to the kids’ last name, Baker.

Now consider this:

J.D. might be a member of the World Series champs, but A.J., last year’s champion two-year-old at Canterbury, is taking a shot at Saturday’s $60,000 Minnesota Oaks.

She will be the favorite in a field of nine based on some splendid PPs, but presents a question nonetheless. The race could be a bit of a stretch for this girl. She’s proven her worth beyond question at sprint distances, but today’s contest is at a mile and 70 yards. Therein lies the rub for A.J., although her connections say she is good to go and benefit by losing the blinkers.

“She’s been pointing to this race all year and has trained really well,” said trainer Todd Hoffrogge. “This might not be her best distance, but she’s as prepared as well as possible.”

A.J. Bakes is the morning line first choice in the Oaks, and by winning can pick up an additional $20,000 – $10,000 for the breeder and $10,000 for the owner.

“Oh, you don’t have to tell me,” said Bob Knox, who owns the horse in partnership with his stepson, John Baker. There are three conditions for that bonus to apply and A.J. has met two of them. She met the first condition when she was sold at the 2006 MTA Yearling Sale, and met the second by winning the Northern Lights. A horse meeting all three conditions earns $10,000 for the owner and the same amount for the breeder, in this case, Bert and Sandy Dahlberg.

The stable’s biggest concern heading into the race is Pretty as a Smile, a 9-2 choice out of the Gary Scherer barn.

“That horse beat A.J. by a length on the turf, but A.J. beat her soundly on the dirt,” said Hoffrogge

The advantage in that case appears to be A.J.’s. The Oaks is on the dirt.

A.J., who’ll have regular Hall of Fame rider Scott Stevens on her back for the Oaks, has by far the best earnings in the field with $104,098 from seven lifetime starts that include four wins and two seconds. Pretty as Smile is next with earnings of $46,730.

Knox is responsible for getting his family involved in horse racing. He bought a horse in 1979 when he was still a resident of Seattle. His trainer was Kathy Hutchinson, who later trained at Canterbury Downs. That was the start of his fascination with the game and he invested in some broodmares as well, until his first wife passed away.

Knox relocated to White Bear Lake 10 years ago when he remarried. His wife, Mary, is mother to John Baker, Bob’s partner in A.J. Bakes. John and Tammy Baker have two children, Annie 13, and Jack, 16.

Knox clearly has been around the game and knows some of its ups and downs.

“A friend of mine asked the other day if he should get into horse racing,” Knox said. “I told that him if he wanted to get out of the game with a million dollars, he would need two million when he got in.”

Just the same, the Knox and Baker families clearly like this game will have their share of butterflies when they fill the paddock before the Oaks.

“We’ve never had a horse as good as this one,” said Knox.

“Some people wait a lifetime and never get one like this,” said Tammy Baker.

“She’s in good shape and is ready to run,” said Knox. “Now we’ll see if she likes the distance.”

MINNESOTA DERBY

Baker and Knox also have a horse in the 12-horse $60,000 Minnesota Derby, Mr. Inquisitive, a 12-1 morning line choice. The Derby doesn’t have a horse with credentials like A.J. Bakes and is a more wide-open affair.

The morning line favorite at 4-1 line in the Derby is He’s No Piker, out of the Mac Robertson barn. That alone will garner plenty of support for the top choice in this race. Ry Eikleberry will ride. He’s No Piker is owned by Pete Lyle and Jeff, John and Brian Drown.

Trainer Tammy Domenosky will saddle Sahan, a 5-1 pick, for Kissoon Thoroughbreds. Dean Butler has the mount.

Stevens will ride 6-1 choice Silver Wilber, also owned by the Drowns, out of the Doug Oliver barn, .

BENEFIT A ROUSING SUCCESS

The HBPA benefit staged this week raised $12,000 for three longtime horsemen who’ve been a part of Canterbury for many years: farrier Gary Ladd, who died recently from cancer, and trainer George Bango and steward Hank Mills who are both ill.

The benefit included a pigroast sponsored by Canterbury and the HBPA as well as an auction that raised funds for the familes of the stricken men.

“It was a fabulous turnout and a great job by everyone involved,” said HBPA president Tom Metzen. “These people really responded. It was like a big family that reached out to help one another.”

Metzen was thrilled with the response from horsemen of all ilks.

“Barb Noll, Patrice Underwood, John Clark, Cam Casby, Roger Walker, Pat Ediger and Barb Minor did a fabulous job,” he said.

Several horse owners, including Casby and Barry Butzow, made the winning bids on certain items and then turned around and donated them right back and they were sold again.

Metzen cited Doug Oliver and Scott Stevens among others who made substantial bids for items to help the effort.

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