By Ed McNamara
He looked like Bob Baffert’s next star when he went 3-for-3 as a 2-year-old, but he did nothing in the Triple Crown. He failed as the Derby favorite (fourth, beaten 5 1/4 lengths) and as the chalk in the Preakness (sixth, 3 3/4 lengths behind). His only success in a 1-for-7 season came in a weak, ungraded stakes, and the year ended with a distant fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
Bad gate manners and a knack for finding ways to lose kept bringing down Improbable. When he blew a two-length lead and lost his 4-year-old debut, it felt as if he’d always be a career underachiever. Then the light went on.
He dominated three consecutive Grade 1’s — the Santa Anita Gold Cup, Whitney and Awesome Again — to vault to No. 1 in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll. The Awesome Again, a 4 1/2-length win over stablemate Maximum Security, produced a third straight career-top Beyer Speed Figure and made him the morning-favorite for the Classic.
Improbable? Based on his first 11 races, shocking.
“He always showed a lot of talent as a 3-year-old, but he wasn’t physically or mentally mature,” Baffert said. “But what a difference a year makes. I’m just glad Elliott Walden and WinStar Farm decided to keep racing him at 4.”
Improbable’s Classic odds probably will be lower than they should be, because people will overvalue his perfect-trip romp in the Awesome Again. He got a perfect setup behind a fast pace in a five-horse field and surged past tired leaders.
“Improbable is getting really good, and [Maximum Security] didn’t bring his ‘A’ game,” Baffert said. “Drayden [Van Dyke] rode a great race, just sat back there early on. He saw what was happening up front and let them go.”
Maximum Security, the 1-2 favorite, “was in a full drive from the half-mile pole” but still held second thanks to his tremendous class. In the Classic he should get a better trip, and Improbable is unlikely to get the run of the race again. I’m not going to bet him to win. I suspect he’ll regress as an underlay against the best field he’ll ever face.
Odds: 5-2 (favorite)
Post position: 8
Jockey: Irad Ortiz Jr.
Trainer: Bob Baffert
Owner: WinStar Farm, SF Racing
Career record: 14-7-3-0
Career earnings: $1,709,520
Top Equibase speed figure: 120
Pedigree: City Zip/Rare Event-A.P. Indy
Running style: Stalker
Notes: Baffert is tied for second with Chad Brown with 15 Breeders’ Cup wins, five behind D. Wayne Lukas. Baffert was shut out last year at his home base, Santa Anita, after taking the 2018 Juvenile with Game Winner at Churchill Downs. . . Baffert on Improbable’s sudden emergence: “He was a light-bodied horse, and he finally filled into his frame. He’s hitting on all cylinders, and I love the way he’s coming into this race.”
|2||Tiz the Law||Manuel Franco||3-1|
|3||By My Standards||Gabriel Saez||10-1|
|4||Tom’s d’Etat||Joel Rosario||6-1|
|5||Title Ready||Corey Lanerie||30-1|
|6||Higher Power||Flavien Prat||20-1|
|7||Global Campaign||Javier Castellano||20-1|
|8||Improbable||Irad Ortiz Jr||5-2|
|10||Maximum Security||Luis Saez||7-2|
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.