Did racing ever need a day like Saturday at Santa Anita Park.
And throw in Aqueduct and Keeneland.
After a month of crazily-paced preps that confused the Kentucky Derby picture and a winter of unfortunate accidents that have threatened the very fiber of the sport, racing delivered a normal day Saturday. And it felt abnormally wonderful, especially for equine purists and chalk players.
“Now we can dream in Technicolor and think about the Kentucky Derby,” said Bob Baffert, who trained Roadster (3-1) and Game Winner (1-2) to a one-two finish in the $1,000,351 Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, springboarding them to next month’s run for the roses.
The Baffert exacta came the same afternoon as Tacitus won the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct in New York, and Vekoma finished first in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky. Those results ended a 1-for-10 slump for favorites in U.S. points preps for the Derby.
Not that Roadster’s victory fell in line with the twentysomething-to-one upsets last weekend at the Fair Grounds and Meydan. He was, after all, the first horse that drew a bet last summer in a Derby future in Las Vegas. That inspired a video paparazzo to ask Baffert about Roadster outside a tony San Diego restaurant last August.
“The TMZ horse,” Baffert said.
But Roadster is also the horse that missed six months after throat surgery to repair a raspy respiratory problem that contributed to his only loss – a third-place finish in last September’s Del Mar Futurity. Two wins since seem to have answered questions about whether he would be the same horse that broke his maiden by 4¼ lengths last July.
“He’s made no noise since,” said Roadster’s jockey Mike Smith, who has teamed with Baffert and last year Justify for back-to-back Santa Anita Derby victories. “We knew he had an abundance of ability. He and Game Winner were breezing like this (in morning workouts) against horses that had already won. I was glad to land on one of them.”
Smith showed his confidence in Roadster on Saturday by taking him 4¾ lengths back off an honest if slowish pace set by Instagrand (3-1) and Nolo Contesto (16-1), the horses that eventually faded to third and fourth.
“I thought they were entertaining each other enough up there,” Smith said. “I felt like I needed to give him a little bit of a breather. Once he got that air in him, he was gone.”
Ridden by Joel Rosario, Game Winner edged past Instagrand with a sixteenth of a mile to go, but Smith was using a left-handed whip on Roadster to erase a narrowing gap, seizing the lead for good just before the wire and winning by a half-length.
“I moved a little bit soon, because they weren’t putting much pressure on Instagrand,” Rosario said of his last half-mile on Game Winner, the eighth of 13 odds-on favorites to lose a U.S. prep for the Derby. “He got a little bit tired the last part. That’s why Roadster got by me.”
If that happened in a 1⅛-mile race, that suggests that Game Winner might not be suited for the 1¼ miles of the Kentucky Derby. But Game Winner’s time for the last furlong was 12.94 seconds where Roadster’s was 12.74, both within the 13-second threshold of the Final Fractions Theory that has worked for 26 of the last 29 Kentucky Derby winners.
“Game Winner is a fighter,” Baffert said. “It was a great stretch run. At the eighth pole I knew I was going to win. I just didn’t know which one.”
That it came on a day free of racing accidents provided Baffert some relief to go along with what seemed like an otherwise normal celebration. It came after 23 racehorses have died from racetrack injuries since Christmas, the most recent coming last Sunday. The crisis has led to calls from animal-rights activists to consider banning horse racing in California.
“There was nobody out there defending us,” Baffert said. “You don’t have to burn the house down just because the pipes are bad.”
As he spoke in a sun-splashed winner’s circle that may as well be his second home, Baffert was gratified looking at the size of the crowd, which was announced to be 30,713.
“It was so comforting to see all these fans here show up today and get behind us,” he said. “They know at the end of the day we love our horses. We wake up worried about them. We go sleep worried about them. To me that’s what made it a great day.”
Racing notes and opinions
Tacitus gets physical to win Wood Memorial. After surviving a NASCAR-like battle to the first turn, Tacitus (5-2) came from eight lengths off the pace to deliver a 1¼-length win in the $750,000 Grade 2 Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. Trained by Bill Mott, Tacitus was banged around in the middle of the track after pace-setting long shot Joevia (30-1) started a chain reaction by veering in hard from his outside post. Coming four-wide out of the final turn, Tacitus engaged Tax (5-1) in a duel down the stretch before taking the lead in the final furlong. The winning time for the 1⅛ miles was 1:51.23. Tax and Haikal (3-1) were second and third and, like Tacitus, have enough qualifying points to go to the Derby. Joevia was demoted by stewards from seventh to last place.
Vekoma rates and scores in Blue Grass. Staying close to the early pace, Vekoma (7-5) drew away in the stretch on his way to a three-length victory in the $1 million Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Win Win Win (3-1) finished second to join Vekoma in the gate at Churchill Downs. Third-place Signalman (6-1) is borderline to get to Louisville. Trained by George Weaver and ridden by Javier Castellano, Vekoma was never called more than a length off a lead established early by eventual fourth-place finisher Somelikeithotbrown (9-1). The winning time for the 1⅛ miles was 1:50.93.
Gift Box wins thriller in the Big ’Cap. After a thrilling, nose-to-nose duel down the stretch, Gift Box (2-1) emerged with a nose victory over odds-on favorite McKinzie (2-5) in the $600,000 Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap. A 6-year-old entire owned by Hronis Racing and trained by John Sadler, Gift Box is now 2-for-2 with Joel Rosario, who also guided him to a win in the San Antonio Stakes on Santa Anita’s opening day Dec. 26. It was the second straight narrow loss for McKinzie, a 4-year-old colt trained by Baffert and ridden by Smith. Mongolian Groom (53-1) finished third of the six horses in the 1¼-mile race.
Fourth choice from Japan accepts Derby bid. After rejections from representatives for three other horses, connections for Master Fencer accepted the one invitation extended to Japan for the Kentucky Derby. The colt sired by Just A Way finished second last weekend in the Fukuryu Stakes, the most valuable race on the Japanese road to the Derby. Owners of the top three finishers on that trail – Fukuryu winner Der Flug, Oval Ace and Nova Lenda – took turns declining the invitation. Ignoring the debate over whether the Derby trail should include races outside the U.S., the bigger problem is that the Japanese and European paths to Kentucky have easier sets of rules and challenges. The fact that the Japanese invitation could be handed down to a horse that would still be “n1x” eligible makes a mockery of the process. So does having the potential European qualifier come in from nothing but turf and all-weather qualifiers that end Thursday with the Cardinal Condition Stakes at Chelmsford, England. Put it this way. If Churchill Downs is willing to accept mediocre imports just to lure overseas bets to our biggest race, it will be like opening our Television Hall of Fame to the “Super Terrific Happy Hour” and “Benny Hill.”
Santa Anita jockeys will be whip-free Friday. In a pre-emptive strike aimed at track management and the California Horse Racing Board, the Jockeys Guild announced that all riders will race without whips here at Santa Anita on Friday. This comes after Santa Anita chairwoman Belinda Stronach responded to the recent spate of racehorse deaths by ordering a ban on whips, a call that won unanimous approval last week of the CHRB. In a statement issued Friday, the Guild said that “in light of the fact that California would be the only major racing jurisdiction in the world to adopt a rule prohibiting the use of the (riding) crop for encouragement, it is imperative that further research and data collection be done to measure safety considerations, as well as the economic impact on all industry entities including the betting public.” Translation: You asked for it, track bosses and racing authorities, you got it. This is a smart, strong move by the Guild, which is co-chaired by Hall of Famers Smith and John Velázquez. The likelihood is that bettors will stay away in droves Friday and send just the message that these professional riders want to see. Friday is the same day that the CHRB meets here to consider whether to move the last 2½ months of Santa Anita’s racing season to other tracks.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com and more frequently during coverage of big races. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts, Apple, Google Play, Stitcher and other leading podcast platforms.