Just when it looked like a speed bias had settled into the Breeders’ Cup, just when bettors went back to shop for nothing but pace-setters – boom – Bob Baffert comes in with one of his freakishly talented 2-year-olds to blow it up.
This time it was Game Winner (1-1), the biggest favorite Friday on the first day of the Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs.
He came through, all right, to win the $2 million Juvenile – but not before scaring any better who put money on him who then worried that he would be eaten alive by the day-long trend. Every horse trailing turning into the stretch on the main track wound up losing – until this one big, beautiful exception came along.
“Any other horse would have been done,” Baffert said. “That’s how good a horse he is.”
Game Winner got stronger with every yard, passing fading long shots like runner-up Knicks Go (40-1) and third-place Signalman (67-1). Oh, there was some coming together in the deep stretch; OK, Game Winner and Knicks Go bumped. But there was no protest. No inquiry. These two horses were going in opposite directions.
With a time of 1:43.67, Game Winner won the 1 1/16-mile race by 2¼ lengths on a drying, fast track, and with a certain Run for the Roses on the same course next May, he will certainly be the favorite when Johnny Avello puts out his Derby futures for DraftKings this month.
“We have to keep him healthy,” Baffert said. “But we’re going to enjoy today, and we can dream about tomorrow.”
Anyone trying to beat Game Winner next spring will be quick to point out that he did not defeat any quality rival in this race. And that stable mate Roadster and Jerry Hollendorfer’s summertime standout Instagrand – the only two horses on which Avello took any Derby futures bets before he left the Wynn Las Vegas last month – are resting for their return to the track in 2019. And that somewhere out there, a quality 2-year-old turning 3 will certainly have more stamina in the stretch than Game Winner’s challengers did Friday.
Those are valid points that may yield winning tickets on long shots next year. But for bettors who are more concerned about these two days this week – and the nine championships yet to come Saturday – there is hope that speed-favoring conditions are fading away with the clouds that brought heavy rain Wednesday night and all day Thursday.
“When I walked out on the track I could tell that it’s starting to dry out,” Baffert said. “When it dries out it starts getting a little heavier.”
If nothing else, Game Winner did show even his critics that he can beat the bias. But even Baffert admitted he was concerned during Friday’s race, especially when the front-running Complexity (5-2) took the early lead. Baffert said he was reassured when he reminded himself that Joel Rosario was riding. The same Joel Rosario that had seven previous Breeders’ Cup wins, including one early Friday.
“He rode him with a lot of confidence,” Baffert said. “That’s what Rosario does, and that’s the perfect type of horse for him. He said he was happy where he was. If he could have been talking to us, he would have said, ‘Don’t worry, boys. We’re good.’”
Game Winner did not get in front until about the sixteenth pole, but just watching him catch up with Knicks Go, and even with the bumping, it was clear that the lead would be his at some point before the wire.
“This is a huge win for me,” Baffert said. “This is the one if he hadn’t won it, I was going to say how could that be? When he won the Del Mar Futurity (two races ago), I knew right there that this was a good horse.”
And let’s just say that when Baffert talked to owners Gary and Mary West after that win in early September, he did not take it “one race at a time” on the way to a possible Eclipse Award for the best 2-year-old of 2018.
“I said he’s two races away from a championship,” Baffert said. “Hopefully he sewed up the championship. It’s so satisfying to win for Gary and Mary, because they have so much passion for the sport.”
And Friday may not have been the Wests’ last trip to the winner’s circle. They also have a nearly forgotten, 5-1 shot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“Even when he’s doing great, Gary knows there’s a punch right around the corner in this game,” Baffert said. “But we have West Coast (on Saturday). He couldn’t be training any better. I told Gary that we’re going to have a big weekend. So we’re looking forward to it.”
Breeders’ Cup notes and opinions
Morning-line favorite Polydream (5-1) was scratched on orders from officiating veterinarians from Saturday’s running of the Mile, and her French trainer Freddy Head was furious. “It’s a disgrace,” Head told Racing UK. “The vet decided she wasn’t trotting well. She always trots like that. She hasn’t got the best knees, so she’s always trotting a bit on the side.” A Group 1 winner this summer at Deauville, Polydream leaves a void that makes two-time Del Mar graded-stakes winner Catapult (6-1) and Woodbine Mile victor Oscar Performance (6-1) as the new, joint favorites on the morning line.
Trainer Mark Casse decided to remove Awesome Slew (15-1) from Saturday’s Dirt Mile. He said that the 5-year-old horse was not feeling well. Awesome Slew finished out of the money in his last two races and is winless in his last seven, including a third-place finish at Del Mar in last year’s Dirt Mile.
A seven-minute stewards inquiry held up the formalizing of Europe’s first win of the championships. Godolphin colt Line Of Duty (7-2) was the first closer to win a race on Friday’s Churchill Downs card when he flashed home first in the $1 million Juvenile Turf. But William Buick’s winning ride was protested by runner-up Írad Ortiz Jr., who took Uncle Benny (8-1) to a short-lived lead before getting caught near the wire and losing by a half-length. Ortiz felt that Line Of Duty came out on him at the top of the stretch and then in on him near the finish. But Line Of Duty himself had woven in and out in the final 100 yards, so stewards let the result stand. “The top of the stretch I was riding the hedge, and I had a horse on my outside,” Buick said. “The bump later on I thought that was a case of that being a 50-50 situation, and it was so late in the race it was sort of right under the wire. It didn’t make any difference to any of the results, and the stewards obviously agreed.” Uncle Benny wound up second just ahead of Somelikeithotbrown (15-1). The win was the eighth in Breeders’ Cups for Sheikh Mohammed’s Godolphin.
For the third year in a row and the fourth time in the last five years, trainer Chad Brown won the $2 million Juvenile Fillies Turf, saddling Newspaperofrecord (3-5) to a lopsided, gate-to-wire victory. Ridden by Ortiz, the 2-year-old filly sired by the Irish stallion Lope De Vega finished 6¾ lengths clear of East (12-1), a U.K.-based daughter of Frankel, and east-coast maiden winner Stellar Agent (71-1). Newspaperofrecord is 3-for-3, winning her races by an average of 6.7 lengths. The winning time was 1:39.00 for the mile on a turf course labeled as good, although it was probably closer to yielding. Nine of Brown’s 11 Breeders’ Cup victories have been on turf.
Running her winning streak to four, Jaywalk (5-1) led the whole 1 1/16 miles in the $2 million Juvenile Fillies, the first of the championship races on a drying main track that was declared fast early Friday. It was also the first Breeders’ Cup victory of trainer John Servis’s career. Ridden by Rosario, the daughter of Cross Traffic led at every call for the second race in a row, doing the same thing as she had last month at Belmont Park in the Grade 1 Frizette. Restless Rider (3-1), a two-time winner here at Churchill Downs, and Vibrance (35-1) were second and third with the favorite Bellafina (9-5) a non-factor in fourth.
Bulletin (4-1) led from the first stride of a perfect start under jockey Javier Castellano and won the inaugural running of the $1 million Juvenile Turf Sprint. “He broke great,” winning trainer Todd Pletcher said laughing. “He almost left Javier.” The colt sired by City Zip won by 2¾ lengths and was clocked at a winning time of 1:05.54 for the 5½ furlongs. Trained by Wesley Ward, Chelsea Cloisters (24-1) held second from beginning to end and was a runner-up for her fourth race in a row. The Coolmore filly So Perfect (10-1) closed down the middle of the course to finish third. It was Pletcher’s 10th Breeders’ Cup win and Castellano’s ninth. Bulletin is owned by WinStar Farm, the China Horse Club and SF Racing, the same group that successfully campaigned Justify to sweep this year’s Triple Crown.
Ron Flatter’s racing column will be posted each evening from the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, Ky., through Saturday. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s guests are Eddie Olczyk, racing analyst for NBC and XBTV, and Brad Cox, trainer of Distaff favorite Monomoy Girl. The pop-up RFRP – a handicappers’ preview of all 14 races – also continues to be available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.