Beware the Ides of July. Or under another title, Wednesday was one of those days.
That was when the Del Mar weekend was called off because at least 15 jockeys were said to have tested positive for the coronavirus. And trainer Bob Baffert is appealing a 15-day suspension he was handed Wednesday after drug positives took victories in Arkansas away from Gamine and Charlatan.
Beware the Eve of the Ides, too. Because the decision announced Tuesday to virtually lock the jockey colony in place at Saratoga will go much further in shaping the look of racing this summer.
Oh, yes. To prevent the coronavirus from being brought in, jockeys from out of town will not be allowed at Saratoga this summer. And the New York Racing Association declared that any jockey leaving to ride somewhere else will not be allowed to come back.
But make no mistake. The locking of the “in” door does not mean that much. As one Saratoga regular put it, “We have plenty of good jockeys here.”
The scramble will come when riders like the Ortiz brothers, Javier Castellano and John Velázquez do not travel to big races outside New York. Reigning two-time Eclipse Award winner Irad Ortiz Jr., for instance, had to turn down his usual assignment on Belmont Stakes runner-up Dr Post (5-2 morning line), one of the top two contenders Saturday in the $1 million Grade 1 Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park on the Jersey Shore.
“We obviously would have loved to have kept Irad on the horse,” trainer Todd Pletcher told VSiN. “I think he was excited about going to ride him. Under the circumstances we totally understand why he can’t.”
So Pletcher turned to “Jersey” Joe Bravo, a 13-time Monmouth Park riding champion who won the 2004 Haskell with Lion Heart.
“Before NYRA officially announced their new policy, there were some whispers going around the back side (Tuesday) morning that this might happen,” Pletcher said. “I actually had a text message from Joe a couple hours before it became official. It was a ‘put me in coach, I’m ready’ text.”
The likely Haskell favorite Authentic (4-5) will also be without his usual rider, who also has the coronavirus. But that is just a coincidence. Baffert decided last month to have Mike Smith take over on the Santa Anita Derby runner-up and replace Drayden Van Dyke, who said only this week that he tested positive.
The pandemic knows no boundaries. Jockey lockdowns figure to be more commonplace, especially after Los Alamitos let its guard down this month. According to the Daily Racing Form and Los Angeles Times, no fewer than 19 riders who were at the Cypress, Calif., track during the Fourth of July weekend caught the virus. They account for 14 of the 15 at Del Mar who are now in the middle of two-week quarantines, not to mention seven people who were flagged in tests after working in the jockeys rooms at both tracks.
The suspension of racing at Del Mar just added one more cursed chapter to the story of Maximum Security. The 5-1 futures betting favorite for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland was supposed to make his comeback Saturday in the $150,000 Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. That presumably will still happen, but not for another week.
Still, this is the horse that was disqualified from his 2019 Kentucky Derby win because of interference. And he might yet be disqualified from his Saudi Cup victory Feb. 29 because trainer Jason Servis was indicted for illegally doping horses. And his jockey Luis Sáez caught the coronavirus. And now this.
Oh, yes. His new trainer, Baffert, just got punished after Gamine and Charlatan were found to have had excessive trace amounts of lidocaine in their systems after winning May 2 races at Oaklawn Park. While he appeals he is allowed to keep training.
“It was innocent,” Baffert told Louisville TV station WLKY. “It’s too bad, because those horses ran incredible races. I try to be as careful as possible. It was just an innocent mistake. We’ll just have to appeal it, and everybody will see exactly what happened.”
The explanation was that assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes unknowingly passed lidocaine by hand from his back-relief patch to the horses’ mouths.
Whatever the case, Baffert will press on. Maximum Security will presumably race with understudy rider Abel Cedillo next weekend. Dawdling supervisors at Del Mar will finally figure out that they are not above the pandemic and order more distance between jockeys. And for the next 7½ weeks Saratoga will be a bubble.
Beware the Ides of July, indeed. In this annus horribilis, it seems all too fitting to ask the question. Et tu, 2020?
Racing notes and opinions
Already qualified for the Kentucky Derby, Authentic does not need the 100 points that go with a victory Saturday in the Haskell. But his connections and, moreover, his backers could use a shot of confidence. He left questions about his ability to get the 1⅛ miles last month in the Santa Anita Derby, finishing second as an overmatched 1-2 favorite. But the winner Honor A. P. is not walking through that door this weekend. The new question is whether Authentic, from post 2, may be able to set the pace without getting sucked into a speed duel with Ny Traffic (7-2), drawn outside in the field of 7. Lebda (20-1) is the only stakes winner other than Authentic and Dr Post, and he appears to be in over his head. The play here is Dr Post cold over Authentic and Lebda on exacta and trifecta tickets.
The disqualification of Gamine from an allowance victory May 2 in Arkansas means little in the great scheme of the Kentucky Oaks. But a domino effect came with Charlatan being stripped of his victory in one division of the Arkansas Derby. Basin was moved up to first place, but since owner Terry Green and trainer Steve Asmussen decided to point him toward sprints, those 100 Kentucky Derby qualifying points went to waste. Because of colitis, promoted runner-up Gouverneur Morris is also off the Derby trail. So just pretend that the first division of the Arkansas Derby did not even happen.
The restrictions preventing riders from coming and going from Saratoga means that jockeys who ride at Churchill Downs during Kentucky Derby week in September will not be able to go back to New York for the last two days of the meet Sept. 6 and 7. The biggest races those two days will be the Spinaway and the Hopeful, both Grade 1 sprints for 2-year-olds.
Nevada residents need not read this, because it is not an optimum betting choice, and even if it was, it is one of the many options unavailable via the state’s racebooks. The unprecedented sixth pool of the pari-mutuel Kentucky Derby Future Wager and the second for the Kentucky Oaks open Friday at noon EDT and close Sunday at 6 p.m. EDT. Belmont winner Tiz The Law was made the 5-2 morning-line favorite for the Derby and Acorn winner Gamine 9-5 for the Oaks. As usual, the best advice is to wait until the final minutes to bet, since it is like any horse race. The odds change, and what you see Friday is not what you will get when the pool closes.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Dr Post’s trainer Todd Pletcher, Monmouth Park analyst Brad Thomas and VSiN handicapper Vinny Magliulo preview Saturday’s $1 million Haskell Stakes. The coronavirus shutdown of Del Mar, jockey restrictions at Saratoga and suspension of trainer Bob Baffert are also discussed. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.