As times change, even a two-time Triple Crown-winning, Hall of Fame trainer has to adjust.
In an era when horses are racing less and less, Bob Baffert looks like he is not only ahead of the curve, but he is leading the vanguard.
This goes way beyond what he did with Justify in a gaudy, 112-day dash from apprenticeship to retirement. Very quietly, Baffert has adapted his barn’s business model the way Mike Krzyzewski had to do at Duke when one-and-done became the vogue in basketball.
“Our clients get excited about these 2-year-old races and derbies,” Baffert told the publicity team at Del Mar last weekend. “Usually when they get older, their value is at stud, and they leave.”
Justify exemplified that to a point – even at the on-the-way-to-older age of 3. So just three weeks after he won the Belmont Stakes to finish what seemed like a sprint to the Triple Crown, Baffert debuted Dark Prince in a maiden race at Los Alamitos. A fifth-place finish belied what was ahead.
In the nearly five months since, Baffert put a couple dozen more 2-year-olds on the track for the first time. Fifteen of them won their debuts with another three placing second and two finishing third. Twelve of those colts and fillies have raced multiple times this year, and 10 have won since their debuts. That gives Baffert 26 wins, six seconds and five thirds out of the 47 starts for his 2-year-old string. No wonder they are all short-priced for bettors.
Baffert’s group includes Game Winner, the 6-1 favorite at William Hill to win next spring’s Kentucky Derby. He is likely to be the individual favorite when betting closes Sunday in the first pool of the nationwide Kentucky Derby Future Wager being conducted by Churchill Downs this long weekend. His morning line was set at 8-1. Baffert, in fact, has seven of the 22 individually nominated horses in the KDFW.
Minutes after Game Winner won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile early this month, Baffert admitted that he was already looking ahead with owners Gary and Mary West to what could happen on the same track next May.
“At the eighth pole I started thinking some roses,” Baffert said. “There’s nothing like having a 2-year-old when you’re thinking spring classics. I just feel fortunate that Gary and Mary send me their best ones. I’ve been telling Gary all along I think (Game Winner is) special.”
Horsemen around the world have taken notice of what Baffert has been doing. Godolphin, which finally won its first Melbourne Cup with Cross Counter this month after years of trying, has decided to go with a winning formula to break its Kentucky Derby maiden. Instead of going through the east coast with Kiaran McLaughlin, it sent its promising colt Coliseum to the five-time Derby winner Baffert to try and get Sheikh Mohammed that elusive victory.
Typical of just about any horse sired by Tapit, Coliseum is head-strong. But he did not disappoint in his debut, winning with jockey Joe Talamo last Saturday at odds of 1-2 in a maiden race at Del Mar.
“He has been tough to work with,” Baffert said. “He wants to run off in his works, and it’s been hard to get him to relax. Now we’ve got that race out of the way, and we’ll stretch him out.”
So now Baffert has Game Winner, Coliseum (15-1 on the KDFW morning line), Grade 3 winner Mucho Gusto (20-1), Golden State Juvenile victor Cruel Intention (among all other colts and geldings 7-5) and, of course, Improbable (10-1), the freakish winner of the Street Sense Stakes on the Breeders’ Cup card. Those five young colts are a combined 11-for-11.
Let’s not forget, though, that there was plenty of hype this past summer around Roadster after he won his debut for Baffert so impressively at Del Mar. He and Jerry Hollendorfer’s Instagrand were the only two horses that had odds posted at the Wynn Las Vegas before bookmaker Johnny Avello left for DraftKings. Even Baffert found himself dropping Roadster’s name to a TMZ paparazzo who asked him about the 2019 Derby.
But then Roadster was a beaten favorite his next time out in September, finishing third to Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity. Suddenly looking more like a good miler than a promising classic horse, Roadster was given a break. Baffert seems in no rush to bring him back before the important Derby preps come along in March. Based on what happened with Justify this year, is there really any need?
Baffert punctuated his comments last weekend with the usual warning about the pitfalls that await any horse taking to the long Derby trail.
“There are challenges,” he said. “Things can go wrong. They’ll break your heart coming in here. But that’s what we do, and it’s fun.”
In other words, be careful taking short odds with Game Winner. Or Coliseum. Or any horse in between. Even Baffert’s.
Racing notes and opinions
Kentucky Derby Future Wager: Unlike past years, there are only 22 individual horses instead of 23 in the KDFW. The extra spot was allocated to a field entry of any fillies, none of which has started the Derby since the current points system went into effect six years ago. These are the 24 choices in the KDFW (morning-line odds in parentheses): Cairo Cat (30-1), Code of Honor (20-1), Coliseum (15-1), Dunph (30-1), Epic Dreamer (50-1), Game Winner (8-1), Gunmetal Gray (30-1), Improbable (10-1), Instagrand (10-1), King For A Day (50-1), Knicks Go (20-1), Magic On Tap (30-1), Maximus Mischief (30-1), Mucho (50-1), Mucho Gusto (20-1), Network Effect (30-1), Preamble (50-1), Roadster (30-1), Signalman (50-1), Tale Of The Union (30-1), Uncle Benny (50-1), Vekoma (30-1), all 3-year-old fillies (30-1) and all other 3-year-old colts and geldings (7-5). The pool opened Thursday, and it closes Sunday at 6 p.m. EST. There is a Kentucky Derby Sire Future Wager running concurrently with the KDFW. Candy Ride and Into Mischief are 6-1 on the morning line, just behind “all others” at 5-1. One bit of advice: Since both these wagers are pari-mutuel, wait until the Kentucky Jockey Club is run this weekend before making a bet.
Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes: Led by Breeders’ Cup Juvenile runner-up Knicks Go, four of the 22 horses in the KDFW were drawn into the $200,000 Grade 2 Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile Derby points prep scheduled for Churchill Downs on Saturday at 5:56 p.m. EST. Ridden by Albin Jiménez for trainer Ben Colebrook, the Grade 1-winning colt sired by Paynter is one of four speed horses in the field of 14. But he drew 13, just outside Todd Pletcher trainee King For A Day, another speed horse in the KDFW. Pace chasers Signalman, third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and Dunph, 2-for-2 in ungraded races, were drawn to the inside and also appear on the KDFW list. Dunph won his races by an average of more than eight lengths. If he carries any value, he is the play. But the sneaky choice may be Current. Pletcher takes him off the grass, where he was caught blowing bubbles in the gate while the others got started in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Already carrying route experience, if Current regains the form that won him the Grade 3 Bourbon in October at Keeneland, he could pick up the pieces of shattered pace war and pay big.
Clark Handicap: Nearly three weeks after finishing second to City Of Light on the same track in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, Seeking The Soul (8-5 morning line, 123 pounds) will defend his 2017 victory Friday at 5:56 p.m. EST in the $500,000 Grade 1 Clark Handicap over nine furlongs at Churchill Downs. Trained by Dallas Stewart, the 5-year-old horse sired by Perfect Soul is one of three closers in the eight-horse field; 4-year-old Hence (12-1, 118) and 8-year-old gelding Hawaakom (15-1, 116) are the others. Seeking The Soul will be reunited with jockey John Velázquez, who rode him to last year’s win in the Clark. Breaking from the rail, Prime Attraction (3-1, 120) is likely to set the early pace. Trained by Jim Cassidy and ridden by Kent Desormeaux, he came within a head of winning the Grade 2 Fayette in the slop last month at Keeneland. Brad Cox trainee Leofric (3-1, 121), a two-time graded-stakes-winning pace chaser, prevailed in that race and also comes back for the Clark. Likely racing in mid-pack, the durable Preakness runner-up Bravazo (9-2, 118) will start his 11th race this year for trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Bravazo was third in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, 2½ lengths behind Seeking The Soul. Churchill has been favoring front-runners and stalkers this fall. Considering Prime Attraction has been battle-tested in California most of the year, he is the choice here.
Gary Stevens retires. After being diagnosed with a precarious injury to his spinal column, Hall of Fame Gary Stevens announced his third retirement. What makes this one seem final is a doctor’s warning that a fall would make him more prone to possible paralysis. Stevens, 55, got hurt during a post parade Saturday at Del Mar, and he needs surgery to relieve pressure on a vertebra in his neck. In 39 years of riding, Stevens won 5,187 races and totaled purse earnings of $258 million. He also won each of the U.S. classics three times in addition to 11 Breeders’ Cups. Stevens did not say what his next career move would be, but he seems likely to return to being a TV analyst and an actor, both of which he does very well.
Enable will race in 2019: Breeders’ Cup Turf winner Enable will race again next year as a 5-year-old. Juddmonte Farms announced Monday that the prime target will be for her to win the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for an unprecedented third consecutive year. Racing manager Lord Teddy Grimthorpe said that no racing schedule has been set. After having surgery late last year to repair a blood vessel that burst into a knee, Enable was out of training 10 months and raced only three times in 2018. According to Oddschecker.com, Enable has shortened to 9-2 in European markets to win the 2019 Arc.
Australia plans $3.65 million mile: What appears to be the world’s richest mile for thoroughbreds will be run in Australia starting next year. Racing authorities based in Melbourne on Monday introduced the $3.65 million All-Star Mile, scheduled for March 16 at Flemington Racecourse. The special condition of this weight-for-age race is a fan vote. Owners and trainers must nominate their horses by early January. Then fans will vote on line through late February to determine 10 of the 14 starters. Racing authorities in the state of Victoria will retain four wild cards. The fee to enter a horse is only $500. Using an idea pioneered in Japan with the Arima Kinen, the horses also will be represented by 14 lucky fans – one drawn for each horse – who will get 10 percent of any purse winnings.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and after big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s edition features trainer Dallas Stewart discussing Seeking The Soul’s bid to win a second consecutive Clark Handicap and American-turned-Japan racing ambassador Kate Hunter previewing the $5.7 million Japan Cup scheduled for Sunday at 1:40 a.m. EST. Racehorses by the Letters considers the best horse with a name starting with “C.” The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.