By Richard Rosenblatt
There actually is a record Bob Baffert could set at the Kentucky Derby – most starters in the same race.
Nadal took the lead early on over a sloppy track, held off a late challenge by 82-1 long shot Excession and won the $1 million Rebel Stakes (G2) by three-quarters of a length over a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park on Saturday.
Now unbeaten in three career starts, Nadal gave the five-time Derby winning trainer yet another Derby starter after the 3-year-old colt earned 50 Derby qualifying points – his first points on the road to Louisville.
“We were hoping for that outcome. We knew he was a good horse, but until they go two turns … and then the way it set up, the speed duel and all. Pretty impressive when they can just keep going like that,’’ Baffert said. “Only the really good ones can do that. I was just fortunate that you guys even ran the race, right now with the way things are. Crazy.”
As of March 14, Baffert has a chance to saddle six horses in the Derby on May 2 – that is if there is a Derby (a decision could come this week as the track monitors health issues regarding the coronavirus). The record is five starters in one Derby, shared by D. Wayne Lukas (1996), Nick Zito (2005) and Todd Pletcher (2007, 2013). His five Derby wins is one shy of the record held by Ben “Plain Ben” Jones.
In addition to the imposing Nadal, Baffert also trains Authentic, Thousand Words, Azul Coast, Eight Rings, High Velocity – all contenders with qualifying points and likely to run again in prep races. The two-time Triple Crown winning Baffert also has a rising star in Charlatan, who once again ran lights out in winning an optional claiming race by 10 ¼ lengths at Santa Anita a few minutes after Nadal’s victory in Arkansas. Charlatan won his first start by 5 ¾ lengths on Feb. 16.
As for what’s ahead for his horses, Baffert said, “It’s a little early, but we’ll get him back here and we’ll look at all of them (preps). One of them will be there (Arkansas Derby).”
But back to the Rebel, which was run in the slop and without spectators due to health restrictions in dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19).
Highly-touted Nadal proved up to the task under Joel Rosario, seizing the lead early from No Parole and was not intimidated as American Theorem tried to stay with him through much of the race. Nadal broke clear around the final turn, but Calumet Farm’s Excession came charging down the middle of the track only come up a bit short of a huge upset.
Winning time for the 1 1/16 miles was 1:44.97. Nadal returned $3.80, $4 and $3.20.
“It was an amazing effort because he was in the 1 hole and he was told to go to the lead. And when you are told to go to the lead in a mile and a sixteenth race, and he’d never gone around two turns, you are sending the horse into a potential oxygen debt and potential stress.,’’ co-owner George Bolton said. “He didn’t waver. When the pressure hit, he stood and he took it and he accelerated.”
Steve Asmussen-trained Excession earned 20 Derby qualifying points for second, with Asmussen’s Basin finishing third for 10 points, and Three Technique fourth for 5 points.
Excession, ridden by Tyler Baze, paid $37 and $10.80. Basin, making his first start since winning the Hopeful (G1) back on Sept. 2, returned $4.40 to show.
Silver Prospector, also trained by Asmussen, was in challenging position heading into the stretch, but was stuck between horses trying to make a move and dropped back, finishing sixth in the eight-horse field. In winning the Southwest (G3) last month, the colt had a perfect trip over a fast Oaklawn surface.
Nadal, purchased for $700,000 and owned by Bolton Arthur Hoyeau, Barry Lipman, and Mark Mathiesen, scored eye-catching wins at 6½ furlongs in a maiden special and at 7 furlongs in the San Vicente (G2), both at Santa Anita. Stepping up in class in the Rebel did not matter as Baffert upped his record in the race to seven wins in the past 11 years.
In a statement released Saturday, Churchill Downs said it would delay opening of training at the rack two weeks to March 31, and that an update on the status of the Derby would be made in the coming week.
“Churchill Downs officials have been working carefully and diligently with relevant health experts and authorities to ensure the most responsible decision is made regarding the timing of the 146th Kentucky Derby this year,’’ the statement said.
In another Derby prep Saturday, Field Pass came charging down the stretch and edged even-money favorite Invader in the final strides to win the $250,000 Jeff Ruby Steaks (G3) at Turfway Park.
Trained by Mike Maker, Field Pass ($9.60 for a $2 win bet) earned 20 Derby qualifying points in winning the race run on a synthetic surface. Invader, trained by Wesley Ward, picked up 8 points, third-place finisher Fancy Liquor received 4 points, and fourth-place finisher Halo Again received 2 points.
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.