By Richard Rosenblatt
Future Stars Friday on day 1 of the two-day, $31 million, 14-race Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar was a doozy.
In what will likely be one of the most awkward days in Breeders’ Cup history, embattled Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert won the Juvenile (G1) with Corniche, who likely will be the early favorite for the Kentucky Derby favorite but may not be able to run.
Adding to the mix was a horse that was scratched and then unscratched (Modern Games), allowing him to win the Juvenile Turf (G1).
Finally, can anyone say “wire-to-wire?
Darting out of the far post to the lead in the Juvenile, Corniche under Hall of Famer Mike Smith wired his 10-rivals and won by 1 ¾ lengths over Pappacap, with Giant Game third.
The victory was the fifth in the Juvenile for Baffert, and the third for Smith, giving the rider a record-extending 27th BC win.
With Jack Christopher, the expected favorite scratched on Thursday night, Corniche went off as the 7-5 favorite and returned $4.80 on a $2 win bet.
Corniche is now 3-for-3 and likely clinched an Eclipse Award as 2-year-old male champion. The Juvenile winner is usually considered the early favorite for the Derby, but since Baffert has been suspended by Churchill Downs, Corniche did not earn any qualifying points.
Baffert won his seventh Derby with Medina Spirit at Churchill, but a post-race positive for a prohibited medication has that victory in question – not to mention the two-year ban. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has not issued a final ruling on the issue, and Medina Spirit could be disqualified from the win.
Corniche, though, proved he’s on the road to the Derby.
“I knew from the 12 hole he was going to have to use him harder than we like, but Mike Smith is such a great rider,’’ Baffert said. “I love him on a speed horse like that. Once he cleared them, I knew we were going pretty fast. He gave him a breather, but they came to him, and Corniche just kicked back in and popped those horses off.”
Winning time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:42.50.
Commandperformance was fourth, followed by Oviatt Class, Pinehurst, American Sanctuary, Double Thunder, Barossa, Jasper Great, and Tough to Tame.
Baffert also commented on the controversy surrounding him.
“I welcome everything. I want people to know Bob Baffert is a good trainer and takes care of his horses,’’ he said. “I keep the clutter, I keep focused, I don’t listen to the clutter. When you take care of your horses, you get these kind of results.”
As for the Juvenile Turf, the final of the five BC races on Friday, it was a strange one.
As the field was being loaded into the gate, Albahar, one of two entries by Godolphin, “freaked out,” according to jockey Frankie Dettori, got a leg caught in the gate, and went to the ground. He was scratched (horse and rider are OK, an on-call doctor and vet reported).
In addition, stablemate Modern Games broke out of post 1 next to Albahar and was scratched by racing officials. After further review, though, he was declared fit and allowed him to run for purse money only.
That meant all wagers on Modern Games would be refunded. Of course, Modern Games came sailing through the stretch and won the race by 1 ½ lengths over Tiz the Bomb.
Zulu Echo ($3.60) led from start to finish in a championship-clinching 5 ¼-length victory over Juju’s Map, a win that improved the filly’s record to 4-0, including three Grade 1s.
“A very special filly,’’ winning trainer Steve Asmussen said of the daughter of his 2017 BC Classic winner Gun Runner. “She means so much to us.
“The filly, she’s just done everything right from the first time and for her to win in such an authoritative fashion in such an excellent time stands for a true champion.
Zulu Echo, the expected 2-year-old filly champion, becomes the early favorite for the Kentucky Oaks (G2).
Pizza Bianca ($21.80), ridden by Jose Ortiz, took the lead from the start and went wire-to-wire in winning by a half-length over Malavath, giving owner/chef Bobby Flay his second BC win.
The victory was even better for trainer Christophe Clement, who came into the weekend at 0-for-40 in the Breeders’ Cup.
Favorite Koala Princess was seventh in the 14-horse field.
Winning time for the mile was 1:36.08 over a firm turf course.
$1 million Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2), 5 furlongs
Twilight Gleaming ($12.40) got the Breeders’ Cup off to a rousing start by going wire-to-wire and winning by a half-length over Go Bears Go, giving Barbara Banke (Stonestreet Stables), the new board chairperson of the Breeders’ Cup, the victory.
“That’s the way it’s supposed to be,’’ a smiling Banke said in the winner’s circle.
It’s the fourth year of this race, and trainer Wesley Ward and jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., have won the past three – in 2020 they won with Golden Pal and in 2019 they won with Four Wheel Drive.
Kaufymaker was third in the 12-horse field. Winning times was 56.24 seconds.
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.