Derby Watch: With Mastery out, Baffert now betting on American Anthem
By Ron Flatter
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LAS VEGAS--It is at once what is so thrilling about the sport and so cruel. Years of toil can be thrown in the right or wrong direction in mere seconds in horse racing. Just when Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert might have thought he had seen them all, he experienced another one last Saturday.
“It was very emotional,” he said. “The highest of highs and the lowest of lows within seconds.”
It happened not even 15 seconds after Mastery stamped himself a certain favorite for the Kentucky Derby with his runaway, 6¾-length win last Saturday in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. Jockey Mike Smith pulled up the colt in a short-circuited run-out. Something went wrong, and the X-ray verdict confirmed it. Mastery cracked a condylar bone in his left front leg.
“Mastery is recovering well,” Baffert said by phone Thursday from southern California. “They did the surgery on him (Monday). They had to insert some screws in there, but it came together well. Right now he is comfortable. We won’t know for a few months how it heals up and all, but the surgery was successful. That was a positive for the whole thing.”
A racing future for Mastery will not be known until after the Triple Crown season is over, so Baffert is focused now on preparing another 3-year-old colt for another Derby prep – and then taking an overseas trip to look after the star of his stable.
While Arrogate is on the Arabian peninsula being prepared as the favorite for next weekend’s $10 million Dubai World Cup, Baffert is zeroed in on American Anthem’s run Saturday as the 2-to-1 morning-line favorite in the Grade 2 $900,000 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
“He’s a big, strong horse,” Baffert said. “There’s a lot of speed in the race, and he’s a fast horse himself.”
The colt sired by 2012 Derby and Preakness runner-up Bodemeister was last seen in the Santa Anita slop in early January, setting the early pace for a down-the-stretch thriller with Gormley, coming up just a head short in the Grade 3 Sham Stakes – another Derby prep.
Raced only twice so far, American Anthem will be a candidate for the early lead under Smith in Saturday’s 1 1/16-mile race. So will Uncontested (10-to-1), a badly beaten favorite in last month’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, and Royal Mo (9-to-2), winner of last month’s Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita.
“We’re trying to find out what he wants to do with pace,” Baffert said of American Anthem, drawn 7 in the field of 11. “He’s in a position where he’s got a chance if he breaks well. Maybe he stalks. He doesn’t have to go fast, really.”
American Anthem follows a pattern of recent Baffert successes like 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, flexing speed ratings impressively built on California tracks.
“They run fast from gate to wire here, and they’re used to it,” Baffert said. “Racing is really tough in California. If you can make it in California you’re going to make it anywhere in the world.”
Another candidate to be up front or near there is stakes debutant Malagacy. Starting from gate 6, the 4-to-1 second choice on the morning line broke his maiden with a 15-length win in the slop at Gulfstream Park in early January before coming back with a seven-length win when the same course was dry. This will be his first time around two turns for trainer Todd Pletcher and champion jockey Javier Castellano.
“He hasn’t gone that far yet, but he hasn’t shown any desire to slow down,” Pletcher’s assistant Adele Bellinger said of the colt by 2011 Preakness winner Shackleford. “That first race was a ‘wow’ race. I think this will be a very telling race.”
Saturday’s winner will earn 50 points toward qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, making the Rebel a virtual win-and-you’re-in race.
“It’s wide open right now,” Baffert said of the Derby chase. “There’s a lot of nice horses. You’ve got (Sam F. Davis winner) McCraken; he’s really tough. But going 1 1/16 miles you really can’t judge them yet. Until they go 1 1/8 miles that’s when the separation starts.”
That will not be until next month. Until then, it is just a matter of moving forward in the scheduled preps and keeping all the horses healthy. Not that there is anything a four-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer like Baffert or anyone else can do about the type of bad luck that overcame Mastery.
With a close eye on his alma mater Arizona in the NCAA Tournament, Baffert drew an analogy. “Those things happen to horses just like you see with great basketball players,” he said. “They twist an ankle on the floor when they’re taped up with their shoes and everything they still do it. One bad step and that’s what happens.”
Baffert will monitor American Anthem from California, leaving the details in Arkansas to assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes while preparing to fly to watch Arrogate next week in the Dubai World Cup.