By Richard Rosenblatt
It’s a sweep for Bob Baffert!
On one of the most unusual first Saturdays in May – no Kentucky Derby (G1), Secretariat winning a virtual Derby of Triple Crown champions, and split divisions of the Arkansas Derby (G1) – one aspect of racing remained the same: the Hall of Fame trainer just keeps winning.
And now the white-haired Baffert has no less than two unbeaten contenders for the Kentucky Derby, now scheduled for Sept. 5 due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Nadal and Charlatan. He also trains undefeated Authentic.
Nadal aced the stronger second division of the Arkansas Derby by taking charge from Wells Bayou around the far turn and winning by three lengths over Tampa Bay Derby (G2) winner King Guillermo.
The victory moved Nadal to 4-0, and put the 3-year-old colt into the lead on the delayed road to the Derby with 150 qualifying points – he earned 100 for Saturday’s win.
Two races earlier at spectator-less Oaklawn Park, Charlatan crushed the opposition in winning the first division. Both divisions carried purses of $500,000, and each was worth Derby points of 100-40-20-10 to the first four finishers.
“Very exciting day, to say the least,’’ Baffert said. “I thought both horses were going to run really well. Charlatan, what a talent he is and how fast he is. I just loved the way, third out, to ship and to do that, what he did today — only the really good ones can do that. And Nadal, he came out of that race (Rebel) … he’s a tough horse. There’s a lot to him and he’s a cool customer and I could see he’s getting better and better. “
Nadal was sent off as the 9-10 favorite in the field of nine, and broke from the No. 5 post under Joel Rosario. But it was Louisiana Derby (G2) winner Wells Bayou who sprung from the outside post and took the lead through fractions of 23.08 seconds for the first quarter, and 46.21 for a half-mile.
Nadal ($3.80), though, also had a strong start and settled comfortably into second place. Heading into the final turn, Rosario asked Nadal to make a move and that’s what he did, gliding past Wells Bayou, taking charge in the stretch and finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.34, slightly faster than Charlatan’s winning time.
“He looked good. Very good race,’’ Rosario said. “He sat off that horse and then took care of the rest. He’s a champ.”
Owned by George Bolton, Arthur Hoyeau, Barry Lipman and Mark Mathiesen, the son of Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Blame, did not race as a 2-year-old, but broke his maiden at Santa Anita in January, then followed with wins in the San Vicente (G2) and the Rebel (G2) at Oaklawn.
“I just have to thank the timing. He had six weeks between starts. He went back to California and Bob worked him behind horses three times,’’ Bolton said. “I thought if there was speed today, he could sit off it. He had a much more comfortable trip than in the Rebel when he was attacked by three different challengers. I was very proud. He finished well.
“I have a secret. Bob called me two days ago and said he wanted me to come. He said he thought he’d run big and wanted me there.”
King Guillermo finished a clear second for 40 Derby points (giving him a total of 90), followed by Finnick the Fierce (20 Derby points) and Farmington Road (10 Derby points). Wells Bayou wound up fifth, followed by 2-year-old champion Storm the Court, Code Runner and Taishan. Fast Enough and Saratogian were scratched earlier in the week.
Baffert, who has several other Derby contenders in the barn, has won the Kentucky Derby five times, and now has four Arkansas Derby winners – Bodemeister in 2012, American Pharoah in 2015 are the others.
In the first division, Charlatan broke perfectly from the No. 1 post, and delivered an exceptional performance in cruising to a six-length victory over Basin.
The 2-5 favorite was ridden by Martin Garcia, and is owned by seven partners, including Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables and Stonestreet Stables.
Expected to win but perhaps not has handily, Charlatan brought a 2-0 record into his first stakes race, and more importantly picked up his first qualifying points – 100 — for the Kentucky Derby.
The first division was a one-horse show, and it’s too bad fans weren’t there to cheer him on. The 3-year-old chestnut son of Speightstown covered the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.49 and ran uncontested all the way around the track.
Basin, who won the Hopeful (G1) last year but has finished third in the Rebel (G2) and fourth in the Oaklawn Stakes in 2020, ran a commendable second for trainer Steve Asmussen. The colt earned 40 Derby-qualifying points, while Gouverneur Morris finished third and earned 20 Derby points.
Winning Impression was fourth and picked up 10 Derby points, followed by Anneau d’Or, Crypto Cash, Mo Mosa, Jungle Runner and My Friends Beer.
“I can say I am really lucky to ride him,’’ Garcia said. “Mr. Baffert and the owners had a lot of choices. They pick me. I just did my job. He just took me to the winner’s circle.
“They told me we were smoking. I went in 1:09 and he was just galloping. He did in all within himself. I felt someone coming at the 3/8ths and I let him go. He just took off. That’s a sign of a really good horse.”
Charlatan ($2.80) stormed onto the scene in the first race of his career, breaking his maiden by 5 ¾ lengths at Santa Anita in February, then winning an optional claimer/allowance by 10 1/4 lengths at Santa Anita.
Drayden Van Dyke was aboard for those two races, but Garcia – riding in Oaklawn this meet – replaced Van Dyke for Saturday’s race.
Eleven horses were entered in the race, but two – Shooters Shoot and Wrecking Crew — were scratched earlier in the week. This first division was considered the weaker of the two, but the way Charlatan ran it probably didn’t matter who was in the field.
Asmussen was happy with Basin’s effort.
“He was in hot pursuit the whole way. He hung in there really well. Solid fractions,’’ Asmussen said. “I thought Ricardo (Santana Jr.) gave him every shot. He just finished second best.”
The next race for Charlatan, who has to be considered a top Derby contender, remains to be seen as future races over the summer will be designated as Kentucky Derby preps leading to the Derby still four months away. Likely the same for Nadal as tracks, including Churchill Downs, Santa Anita and Belmont Park (hopefully) are just beginning to announce re-opening dates and schedule races.
“I just want to thank the Cella family and Oaklawn Park for the fantastic job, Baffert said. “Just fortunate and happy that they were able to split it and give everybody a chance to get some Derby points.”
By My Standards takes Oaklawn Handicap
Stalking pace-setter Warrior’s Charge until the deep stretch, By My Standards posted a 1 ¾-length victory in the $600,000 Oaklawn Handicap in a race that was sandwiched between Arkansas Derby divisions.
Ridden by Gabriel Saez for trainer Bret Calhoun, the 4-year-old son of Goldencents was sent off at 9-2 and returned $11 on a $2 win bet as he improved to 3-for-3 in 2020.
In what would be his final start of 2019, By My Standards finished 12th in the Kentucky Derby, so perhaps it’s appropriate he came through on what would have been Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
Warrior’s Charge was second, followed by Mr Freeze (the 3-1 favorite), Tacitus, Tax, Captivating Moon, Sky Promise, Chess Chief, Night Opts, Combatant, Bravazo, Identifier, and Trophy Chaser. Improbable was scratched.
In the virtual Kentucky Derby, a simulated race matching all 13 Triple Crown winners, Secretariat took the lead in the stretch and won over Citation, with pace-setter Seattle Slew third. Secretariat, the 1973 Triple Crown winner, was the 4-1 favorite in the fund-raising contest.
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.