by Richard Rosenblatt
If form holds, and it certainly has in the six years since Churchill Downs initiated its points’ qualifying system, then Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is likely to saddle a record-tying sixth Kentucky Derby winner on the first Saturday in May.
Perhaps the bigger question is which one of his stellar 3-year-olds will cross the finish line first?
After Saturday’s blockbuster trifecta of Derby prep races in New York, Kentucky and California, the 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses on May 4 became pretty clear, and the gray-haired guy from southern California is loaded.
Beginning in 2013, the Derby began using qualifying points to gain entrance into a capped field of 20. The favorite has won every edition of the famous race since, including two from Baffert’s barn that went on to sweep the Triple Crown — American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.
So after Roadster, under Hall of Famer Mike Smith, staged a rousing stretch run to defeat stablemate Game Winner (ridden by Joel Rosario) by a half-length in the $1 million Santa Anita Derby (GI), Baffert finds himself with his new star a probable Derby favorite, and his 2-year-old champion right behind in Game Winner.
Oh, and let’s not forget there’s one more weekend of preps, including the $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park, where, to no one’s surprise, Baffert will have the likely favorite in Improbable.
“We’ve been very high on this horse,” Baffert said of Speedway Stables’ Roadster, who broke his maiden at Del Mar by 4 ½ lengths, ran second to Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity (GI), was sidelined for several months due to surgery to correct a breathing issue, returned in March with an optional claiming win at Santa Anita — and now this.
“Those are two really good horses,’’ Baffert said after winning a record ninth Santa Anita Derby. “Game Winner runs hard, but the one thing is he loses focus when he makes the lead like that. But they both ran great. We’re going to the Derby, and Improbable is next. We have to get him on that plane [to Oaklawn Park] and he’s doing great.”
Baffert’s first Derby, in 1996, ended with his Cavonnier getting nosed out by Grindstone in a photo finish so close it still doesn’t seem definitive.
He returned more determined than ever.
He won the 1997 Derby with Silver Charm, the 1998 Derby with Real Quiet and the 2002 Derby with War Emblem. All three went on to take the Preakness (GI), but all three came up short in Triple Crown attempts in the Belmont Stakes (GI).
Thirteen years later, in 2015, he was back in the winner’s circle with American Pharoah, who went on to become the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. And, last year, he teamed with Smith and Justify, who swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes to become the 13th Triple Crown champion.
And here we are again.
Baffert is pretty pumped with less than four weeks until the Derby.
“It was a great stretch run. At the eighth pole, I knew I was going to win, I just didn’t know which one, but it was exciting,’’ he said. “They’ll both like a mile-and-a-quarter [the Derby distance]. I think Game Winner’s next race will be better. I’ve been bringing him along really easy.
“Roadster is a light horse, but has always shown brilliance from day one. We’re just lucky we were able to bring him back, because after Del Mar I was worried that maybe the surgery didn’t go well, because it could’ve gone worse. But I couldn’t thank the surgeon that did it enough. His breathing is not an issue.”
As for Derby points, Roadster needed to finish in the top 2, so now he moves to No. 4 on the leaderboard with 100 points; Gary and Mary West’s Game Winner added 40 points and is seventh with 85 points. Both Instagrand and Nolo Contesto, the third- and fourth-place finishers, are unlikely to make the Derby field.
Baffert wasn’t the only big winner on Saturday, as favorites came through in the $1 million Blue Grass (GII) at Keeneland (Vekoma) and the $750,000 Wood Memorial (GII) at Aqueduct (Tacitus).
Tacitus, a son to top sire Tapit, defeated Tax by 1 ¼ lengths in the 1 1/8-mile Wood to give both owner Juddmonte Farm and Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott a solid chance to win their first Derby. Tacitus had already earned enough Derby points with his win in the Tampa Bay Derby (GII), but soared to the top of the leaderboard with 150 points. Runner-up Tax, owned by R.A. Hill, Reeves Thoroughbred Racing, Hugh Lynch and Corms Racing Stable, earned 40 points and moved into 12th on the leaderboard with 52 points. Shadwell Stable’s Haikal, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, picked up 20 points for third to move up to ninth with 70 points.
“He’s certainly not a speed horse, but he has tactical speed and we know he’s got talent and we know he’s willing to overcome a little adversity,’’ Mott said after a bit of a scary start when Joevia bumped several horses (including Vekoma) while moving in from the No. 11 post. Joevia ended up being disqualified.
“I think the race sets him up well. I think the timing is fine,’’ Mott added. “He’s had two races and a lot of handicappers think the third race off the bench is the best, so I hope that group of handicappers is absolutely right. I think this effort puts him at or near the top of the list (of Derby contenders).”
Gatsas Stable and R.A. Hill Stable’s Vekoma was clearly the best in the 14-horse field for the Blue Grass. Under Javier Castellano, the son of Candy Ride took control in the stretch for a 3 ½- length victory over Win Win Win, who edged Signalman for second. Live Oak Plantation’s Win Win Win is Derby bound with a total of 50 points (14th on the leaderboard), while Signalman has 38 points and is 18th and perhaps on the bubble. Vekoma’s 100 points put the chestnut colt at 110 points — second on the list — after he became the first horse since Coaltown in 1948 to win the Blue Grass in only his fourth career start.
“He’s so talented, it wasn’t really a surprise,’’ Vekoma’s trainer George Weaver said. “He’s always been a star in the morning. The distance is the furthest he’s ever run and he did it authoritatively. Like I said, he’s such an athlete and if he comes out of it well, we’ve got to go to the big dance and give him a shot.”
The final weekend of preps comes Saturday with Improbable, the Los Alamitos Futurity winner (GI) and runner-up in a division of the Rebel (GII), facing stiff competition in the likes of Long Range Toddy, who beat Improbable in the Rebel, along with Rebel division winner Omaha Beach (who beat Game Winner in that race) and Galilean.
The race offers Derby points of 100-40-20-10. Long Range Toddy has 53.5 points and stands 11th overall, while Omaha Beach is 19th at 37.5 points, and would likely need a top 4 finish to solidify his Derby spot.
Improbable has 25 points and likely needs a top-3 finish.
Also Saturday, the Lexington Stakes (GIII) may produce a Derby starter in Sueno, who is listed as a probable. He comes in with 28 Derby points; the Lexington offers 20 to the winner.
Last week, Master Fencer was locked into the No. 20 slot on the leaderboard as the Japan representative in the Derby.
When all is said and done, though, does it really matter what happens this Saturday? All we know is this Derby will be Baffert, Baffert, and most likely more Baffert.
Last six Derby winners (all were favorites):
- 2018: Justify, 2.90-1
- 2017: Always Dreaming, 4.70-1
- 2016: Nyquist, 2.30-1
- 2015: American Pharoah, 2.90-1
- 2014: California Chrome, 2.50-1
- 2013: Orb, 5.40-1
Over the years while working at The Associated Press, Rich Rosenblatt became a familiar name to legions of the horse racing fans and industry insiders with his award-winning articles on horse racing and his stories from the backstretch.
In addition to being an astute observer of sports, Rosenblatt is the co-author of The All-American Chili Cookbook. His work has been seen in just about every publication in the world, including The New York Times, The Washington Post and Time Magazine.