By Ed McNamara
Poor Medina Spirit. Through no fault of his own, he’s been the center of controversy since his postrace drug positive for betamethasone came to light eight days after he finished first in the Kentucky Derby.
Will he be disqualified? The inquiry light is still blinking, and who knows when the case will be adjudicated for good. Who knew that testing a urine sample could be so complicated?
Even when Medina Spirit doesn’t show up, it makes headlines now. Last week he was scheduled to run in the Pennsylvania Derby, but embattled trainer Bob Baffert scratched him after he drew post 9 in the field of 10. “I didn’t like that draw,” Baffert said. “There is too much speed inside him.”
He was referring to Hot Rod Charlie and Midnight Bourbon, who ran 1-2, respectively, at Parx.
“I have a lot of respect for those two other horses. There is not much separating them, but I would be at a disadvantage. That’s why I’m passing.”
That decision drew fire on social media, where Baffert has been a constant target since the spring. Baffert chose to stay home and run Medina Spirit at his home track, Santa Anita, in Saturday’s Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile “Win and You’re In” prep for the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
Also offering an automatic BC berth are the Grade 1, 1 1/4-mile Rodeo Drive (Filly & Mare Turf) and the Grade 2, 6-furlong Santa Anita Sprint Championship (Sprint). I’ll try to make sense of those races, plus the Grade 2 City of Hope and the Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship, which aren’t “Win and You’re In” but probably will supply a few runners to the Mile and the Turf, respectively.
Santa Anita’s three-day stakes weekend wraps up on Sunday with two more “Win and You’re In” races, the Grade 2 Zenyatta (Distaff) and the Grade 3 Chillingworth (Filly and Mare Sprint).
Mo Forza (2) returned from a 10-month layoff to take the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile by zipping the final quarter-mile in 22 3/5 seconds. He’s 5-for-7 at the distance, 4-for-6 over the course, and should be able to avoid a bounce after getting seven weeks off. The classy Smooth Like Strait (5) lost to him by only a head last time and could easily reverse the placings. Hit the Road (3) was third that day and had trouble late; mild upset possible.
A pair of 7-year-old geldings top this field. C Z Rocket (4) finished ahead of Flagstaff (5) in all four of their meetings, although the total margin is less than three lengths. Flagstaff is a Grade 1 winner at 7 furlongs but is only 1-for-8 at 6, a distance where C Z Rocket is 4-for-9, including two wins this year over last year’s sprint champion, Whitmore.
East Coast shipper Magic Attitude (7) has been chasing much better horses (Althiqa, Summer Romance, Mean Mary, Thundering Nights) and does her best work on firm ground. Going to Vegas (4) won three of her last four, including a course-and-distance victory in which she led throughout. Dogtag (1) was 2 1/4 lengths behind her last time, her fourth straight runner-up finish.
My gut feeling is Baffert isn’t very confident in Medina Spirit (5), because otherwise he wouldn’t have pulled him from the Pennsylvania Derby. Or maybe he considered the Awesome Again an easier spot, even though it will be Medina Spirit’s first try against older horses.
The vibe for Medina Spirit is bad. I’m not picking him, even though he conceivably could go wire to wire, his preferred tactic.
I’ll take my chances with the field’s best closer, Idol (8). He hasn’t run since rallying to take the Santa Anita Handicap in March, but Idol is working well and is 3-for-4 around two turns on fast tracks. Medina Spirit will tire late, and Big Cap runner-up Express Train completes the exacta.
Old pro United (4) may have lost a step at age 6 but he’s still very tough. Ignore his close-up fourth last time in the Del Mar Handicap, when he was blocked while moving in upper stretch. I feel sure he would have won with a clean trip, and he’s the class of this field.
Don’t be shy about using Ce Ce (5) as a single in multiple-race wagers. Superstar sprinter Gamine beat her by only three lengths Aug. 28 in Saratoga’s Grade 1 Ballerina, and Ce Ce won’t be chasing anyone of that caliber in this field. She’s 4-for-7 at Santa Anita and dominated a 7-furlong Grade 2 at Gulfstream in her next-to-last start.
Proud Emma (1) closed well to lose by only a length to the solid Edgeway in the 6 1/2-furlong, Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo at Del Mar. Scotish Star (2) posted strong figures when second and fourth for Richard Mandella in two starts since being imported from Argentina.
Bob Baffert’s As Time Goes By (2) gets major class relief after running fourth and sixth behind stars Shedaresthedevil and Letruska, respectively, in the Clement L. Hirsch and Personal Ensign, both Grade 1s. As Time Goes By’s only other loss in her last seven races came against the filly Swiss Skydiver, last year’s Preakness winner. Like Ce Ce in the Chillingworth, on paper As Time Goes By lays over this field.
Miss Bigly (4), who’s 7-for-14 on dirt, ran second this spring at Churchill to stakes-winner Envoutante. Baffert’s other runner, the 3-year-old Private Mission (3), is 3-for-4 lifetime and comes off a front-running, 6 1/2-length win in a Grade 3 mile at Del Mar.
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.