ARCADIA, Calif.--So I’m sitting at Clockers’ Corner on Wednesday, minding my own business the morning after Santa Anita Park’s opening day.
For the uninitiated, Clockers’ is like being in a hotel lobby at a convention. If you want to know what’s really going on, hang out there.
No one works Clockers’ like Bob Baffert. Never mind being a Hall of Fame trainer who won the Triple Crown. Wearing that familiar vest, schmoozing, talking on the phone, he is like the mayor of Arcadia. Baffert is certainly more famous than – wait a second. (Holding for Google.) Got it. He’s more famous than Peter Amundson, the real mayor of Arcadia.
On this particular morning Baffert might have felt like trading places with Peter Whatshisname. Because this was also the morning after the darnedest thing happened.
As he walked past me, I asked, “Bob, how did Collected come out?”
“Good,” he said. “He wasn’t tired.”
I had a hunch he might say that. I even said, “I had a hunch you might say that.” And off he went, not breaking stride. If only Collected had run that way Tuesday.
Again for the uninitiated, Collected is a speed horse. At the beginning of a race he should be on the lead. If he is not he should be overpowered by the smell of it. But on Tuesday he was not.
At odds of 3-10, Collected tuned up for next month’s $16 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational at Gulfstream Park with a performance that was not worth 10 cents. Actually, since he finished third in the $300,000 Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes, it was worth only a nickel on the dollar for a Show bet.
It wasn’t Baffert’s fault; it was clearly Mike Smith’s. The Hall of Fame jockey getting his first afternoon ride on the horse that figures to be Gun Runner’s biggest Pegasus challenger next month never put Collected in contention.
“It was a bad ride,” Smith said. “It was my fault. I slipped leaving the gate. We should have been on the lead. Then they were going too slow, and we couldn’t get there in the end.”
“Too slow”? How did 24.69 seconds sound after the first quarter? Or 49.19 after a half? Like I muttered loudly at the time, “This has upset written all over it.” Nothing like giving Gary Stevens – yet another Hall of Famer – a slow-motion lead with a 13-1 long shot.
After he wired the field, Stevens all but said that Giant Expectations was disrespected by bettors. That his horse ran a better race than it looked when he finished sixth last month in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. That maybe I should not have waited until this far down in the column to mention the horse’s name. (OK, maybe he didn’t say that.)
But then I asked Stevens whether Giant Expectations – a horse that had never before won going longer than a mile – was worthy of parlaying this modest 8½-furlong score into nine big-money furlongs at Gulfstream, he said, “I wasn’t even thinking Pegasus until you mentioned it just now. Actually I was thinking more along the lines of Santa Anita Handicap. But yeah, the Pegasus would be great. He’s got good tactical speed. I wouldn’t back down from anybody the way he just performed.”
By Wednesday trainer Peter Eurton said he was considering the Pegasus and even the Dubai World Cup. But he was not committing. Neither was co-owner Justin Border, who welcomed the Pegasus talk – to a point.
“We need to take big swings when the opportunity comes up,” Border said. No doubt he was tempering his enthusiasm with thoughts about the Pegasus buy-in. In other words, he was not about to throw $1 million around like a paper airplane.
But let’s hold our horses – or at least Giant Expectations – before we declare him to be another Hall of Famer walking through Clocker’s Corner. The only other time Stevens ever got loose on a lead with this 4-year-old was last May, when the colt finally broke his maiden at Belmont Park on his fifth try – and after nearly a year off to recover from a lung lesion.
As unlikely as that is to happen again in the Pegasus, it is a safer bet that Collected will not be held back by Smith. Not against the likes of Florent Geroux and Gun Runner, who will not be shy about assuming command early.
But just look at Collected’s past performances. The last time he was not first or second at the second call, he finished fourth in the slop at the 2016 Preakness. On Tuesday he was dead last in the five-horse field. Talk about unfamiliar territory. No wonder bettors were griping – and Tweeting.
OK, Smith gets it. He does not need his nose rubbed in it. But his accepting blame does not necessarily mean that Baffert might not go to the bullpen for the Pegasus and call in morning rider Martín García, who has ridden all but one of Collected’s eight afternoon wins, including this year’s Pacific Classic.
Oh, yeah. The Pacific Classic. The one in which Baffert was the quintessence of ambivalence after he saddled Collected’s win – and Arrogate’s second of three straight losses. It was a microcosm of 2017 for Baffert, whose barn was good enough to have 11 starters in the Breeders’ Cup – but no winners.
When I saw Baffert on Tuesday morning at Clockers’, we caught up for a few minutes as the opening-day buzz was building. After the post-Christmas pleasantries, and after a pause to glance at the mountains or the palm trees or maybe Rosie’s coffee, Baffert said, “It’s funny. I had the best horse for a year, but he’s not going to be a Horse of the Year.”
Reaching to throw him a lifeline, I said, “I suppose you could still make a case for Arrogate.”
Before that last syllable could spill out of my mouth – and before you would dare think that I would vote for any horse other than Gun Runner – Baffert broke into a wan smile and a realistic shaking of his head.
It has been that kind of year for Baffert, who would be excused for wanting to skip ahead to 2018 as fast as he can. So will bettors who were burned in Tuesday’s San Antonio.
Firenze Fire tries to thaw the Jerome
Two-time graded-stakes winner Firenze Fire will probably be taken more seriously by bettors Monday than he was in 2017. He is the most accomplished of the eight new 3-year-olds that may be racing Monday in the $150,000 Jerome Stakes, an ungraded, Kentucky Derby points prep at 3:34 p.m. EST on a frigid New Year’s Day at Aqueduct.
(Monday’s high in New York will be only 19 degrees with a northwest wind gusting to 25 mph, meaning a sub-zero wind chill and the distinct possibility that the Jerome may be postponed.)
Trained by Jason Servis and ridden by Írad Ortiz Jr., Firenze Fire was sired by Poseidon’s Warrior and won the Grade 3 Sanford last summer at Saratoga. He earned his first 10 Derby points in October at Belmont Park, winning the Grade 1 Champagne by a half-length over Good Magic. In their rematch at Del Mar in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, Firenze Fire never fired and finished seventh, 20 lengths behind first-place finisher Good Magic.
Since breaking his maiden in his first race last June at Monmouth Park, Firenze Fire has not started at odds shorter than 8-1. Drawn into gate 5 for Monday, he will be a heavy favorite cutting back to a one-turn mile after racing 8½ furlongs at the Breeders’ Cup.
None of the other seven in the Jerome has won a stakes race; only three others have even started at least one. Smooth B has been in three, including a fourth-place finish early this month at Parx in the $100,000 Pennsylvania Nursery; he could set the pace from gate 6. Drawn outside for Monday, Millionaire Runner took a short-lived lead four weeks ago in the Grade 2 Remsen, but at 166-1 he was never expected to hold it, and he finished a distant seventh. Diamond King, a colt by Quality Road, is cross-entered in a Saturday stakes at Laurel Park and is expected instead to go there in his first race since Nov. 25, when he clipped heels and threw rider Frankie Pennington in the Kentucky Jockey Club.
There are three others that would be making their stakes debuts in the Jerome. West Point Thoroughbreds colt Seven Trumpets ships in for trainer Dale Romans after winning two in a row at Churchill Downs. Old Time Revival, a maiden winner three weeks ago over seven furlongs at Laurel Park, also might bring early speed from gate 4. Honor Up from the rail and Regalian broke their maidens in their last starts over a mile at Aqueduct.
Racing notes: Ortiz makes winning return
Only 25 days after having knee surgery, jockey José Ortiz rode a winner in his first race back, getting to the Gulfstream Park winner’s circle in Thursday’s opener aboard Shar Ran. “I feel very good,” said Ortiz, 24, who also won this year’s Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. “The only day off I had was the day after surgery. It was a very minor clean-up that I had, so I got very lucky.” Ortiz got the ride on Shar Ran after original rider Julien Leparoux took time off to be with his wife, Shea, who gave birth Wednesday to their second child, Vinn.
Hall of Fame trainer Jack Van Berg, 81, died of cancer at a Little Rock, Ark., hospital on Wednesday. Best known for training Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, Van Berg trained 6,523 wins in a career that brought him the Eclipse training award in 1984. Van Berg’s father, Marion, was also a Hall of Fame trainer. Services are pending.
A positive test for an equine herpes virus was confirmed this week on the French Riviera at the Cagnes-sur-Mer racecourse. France Galop said one horse was being treated for it with another three being quarantined after developing fevers. Optional isolation has also been offered to trainers who want to take precautions for their horses. But that did not satisfy Lisa-Jane Graffard of Godolphin. She asked on Twitter: “Why not a total shutdown until the population is disease free?” France Galop responded that “a total shutdown is not currently justified,” to which Graffard noted “this is the second outbreak in a year. It’s only natural to ask what’s been done differently this time.” The virus killed two horses in April at Jean-Claude Rouget’s stable in Pau, France.
Best wishes to friend and colleague Jeannine Edwards, who said she is retiring from ESPN after working the sidelines at today’s Cotton Bowl. She is also stepping down after hosting the Eclipse Awards five times; NBCSN’s Nick Luck will take over. Edwards, 53, has spent 22 years at ESPN, where she was the primary horse-racing reporter even after the network lost the rights to the Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup. She is married to Oklahoma State University football defensive coordinator Glenn Spencer.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition from Santa Anita features trainer John Sadler and The Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman. Please subscribe and post a review where available at Apple Podcasts, Google Play and Stitcher.