By Ed McNamara
Just when we thought it was safe to feel upbeat about this delayed and scrambled Triple Crown, it wasn’t.
On Monday, the undefeated pair of Nadal and Charlatan seemingly had Bob Baffert in terrific position for the June 20 Belmont Stakes (G1). Now Nadal has been retired and Charlatan could be facing a disqualification from the biggest win of his three-race career.
On Tuesday came the news that Charlatan had failed a drug test after his six-length runaway at Oaklawn Park on May 2 in the first division of the Arkansas Derby (G1). On Thursday, Nadal was retired after fracturing his left foreleg. Baffert said he noticed a problem after the colt breezed 4 furlongs in 48.80 seconds Thursday morning at Santa Anita. X-rays confirmed the injury, and Nadal immediately underwent surgery, in which two screws were inserted to stabilize the leg.
“He’s back in his stall, he looks good,” Baffert told drf.com Thursday.
So instead of having a powerful 1-2 punch, the five-time Derby winner got the old 1-2 from the racing gods.
Nadal, a son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame, completed his career 4-for-4, including a three-length romp in his finale, the second division of the Arkansas Derby. He was No. 1 in many 3-year-old polls and the likely favorite for the 1 1/8-mile Belmont, the opener for this year’s restructured Triple Crown. He is expected to begin his stallion career next year at Spendthrift Farm in Lexington, Kentucky.
“I’m so happy he got the resume he got,” co-owner George Bolton said. “I’m very sorry we didn’t get to go after the reverse Triple Crown.”
As for Charlatan, the split sample’s results could be returned within five days after being submitted to a “referee” lab. If the second test confirms the original positive, Baffert would be entitled to an appeal. Charlatan, however, eventually could be disqualified from a Grade 1 win and its 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points.
Baffert was embroiled in drug-related controversy last September, when The New York Times revealed that 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify had a prohibited level of the banned drug scopolamine in his system after he won the Santa Anita Derby, a month before the Kentucky Derby. Scopolamine can improve horses’ breathing and heart rate, and Baffert denied it had been administered to Justify.
The news didn’t come out until 15 months after Justify swept the classics. The California Horse Racing Board didn’t call it a positive in April 2018, attributing the result to environmental contamination due to jimsonweed, a natural substance found in hay and straw.
Baffert could opt to run Charlatan in the Grade 1, 7-furlong Woody Stephens Stakes on Belmont Stakes day. He said he was leaning that way Wednesday before Nadal got hurt. Baffert told bloodhorse.com Thursday that Charlatan’s seven co-owners want to run in the shorter race. He said he would talk to them and make the decision based on how the colt was training. Despite his romp in the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, in the long run the son of sprint influence Speightstown might be suited best for distances up to a mile.
On Wednesday Charlatan breezed an easy half-mile in 50 seconds at Santa Anita, his first timed drill since leaving Arkansas. Baffert’s horses rarely train that slowly, but the goal of the leisurely workout was to teach the brilliant front-runner to relax.
With Nadal out of the picture and Charlatan’s status up in the air, New York-bred Tiz the Law is the Belmont favorite for the time being. According to the New York Racing Association, other probables include Modernist, Max Player, Farmington Road, Gouverneur Morris, Dr Post, Sole Volante and Basin. Ny Traffic, second in the Louisiana Derby, also could be in the mix. Another possibility is Maxfield, who is 3-for-3 after taking Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Stakes on Saturday in his 3-year-old debut
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.