For all the breathless praise Nadal and Charlatan got after their decisive victories Saturday in the split runnings of the Arkansas Derby, their Hall of Fame trainer was predictably circumspect.
“Have to keep them healthy,” Bob Baffert said in a text to VSiN two hours after the unprecedented sweep pretty much guaranteed them places in the Kentucky Derby.
But the Sept. 5 race date remains a warning to any bettor thinking Nadal or Charlatan has any value in Derby futures. Still four months from post time at Churchill Downs, both horses’ already short prices were cut even more.
Nadal’s three-length win in the more competitive of the two divisions at Oaklawn Park shortened his odds from 8-1 to 4-1 in the William Hill Nevada futures. That makes him and Florida Derby winner Tiz The Law the co-favorites.
Making his stakes debut in the easier first division, Charlatan won by a geared-down six lengths and saw his Derby odds cut from 7-1 to 9-2.
Nadal’s more impressive effort was quantified by a 98 Beyer Speed Figure, tied for the best of his career. Charlatan settled for a 96, marking the first time he had failed to crack three digits. Since 25 of the last 28 Kentucky Derby winners had Beyers of at least 95 sometime beforehand, those numbers will look just fine to Baffert.
“I had my fastballs in there,” he told the Oaklawn Park media department. “We’re just fortunate that it worked out. I was so worried they weren’t going to split that race, because I did not want to run those two together.”
Now a combined 7-for-7, Nadal and Charlatan are not Baffert’s only undefeated Derby candidates. He also has two-time graded-stakes winner Authentic (5-1), a colt with the same owners as Charlatan. Authentic takes a 3-for-3 record into the June 6 Santa Anita Derby. That is as long as Los Angeles County leaders bless a resumption of racing.
“He’s a late foal anyway,” Baffert told VSiN. “The postponement of the Derby really helped him to back off.”
At least one more Derby hopeful in the Baffert barns has inspired a lot of buzz with morning workouts. Cezanne is a Curlin colt who was bought last year for $3.65 million by the Irish racing giant Coolmore. An unspecified injury late last year delayed his debut, which Baffert said might come in about a month.
Asked if any horse in his stable might be the next late-blooming champion like Arrogate or West Coast, Baffert did not hesitate when he said: “I think it’ll be Cezanne. He’d be the one.”
So far William Hill has not posted a Derby price for Cezanne. No doubt influenced by the big sale price and the Coolmore name, he has been listed in foreign futures since September, currently commanding best-priced odds of 40-1.
This is not to ignore Nadal and Charlatan, but the bloom will soon come off their convincing performances at Oaklawn. Now that they are probably qualified for the Derby, Baffert said he might give them a brief layoff. That should be good news for bettors waiting for a better price, since their recency bias will be passed along to winners of upcoming preps.
The $150,000 Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs on May 23 has been declared a Derby qualifier, but it will be worth only 10 points to the winner. Despite a purse cut from $1 million to $400,000, the Santa Anita Derby’s Grade 1 status seems likely to make it the next 100-point Derby prep.
After that the trail has yet to be mapped. There is talk that the Belmont Stakes might be run in late June as a 9-furlong race for the first time since 1894. The Haskell in July, a rescheduled Travers and a stakes race yet to be written at Del Mar could also be on the prep calendar. So could this summer’s Iowa and Indiana derbies.
In the meantime, bettors will be hard-pressed to find new value. Although the four months until Derby day make this seem like a typical January, the difference is that most 3-year-olds have a bigger body of work to handicap than they would in the dead of winter.
It is just a matter now of waiting to see if a late bloomer like Cezanne emerges. With races starting May 16 at Churchill Downs and the possibility that Santa Anita and Belmont Park will be in action soon, at least horseplayers can hold out hope that the talent they are considering for Derby bets will be on display somewhere other than in past performances.
Derby futures: Who’s hot?
King Guillermo (20-1). I was dead wrong about him — and about the Oaklawn Park morning line, which said he would be the second favorite in the second division of the Arkansas Derby. He was. Sent off at 9-2, he lived up to it. He stalked Nadal like a pest on the backstretch, pressed him turning for home and finished three lengths behind in second. He regressed from the 99 Beyer he got for his long-shot win in the Tampa Bay Derby. But this turf graduate for trainer Juan Carlos Avila will not be 49-1 again anytime soon. Not even at the Kentucky Derby, where his 90 qualifying points have almost certainly landed him one of the 20 spots in the gate. He was 16-1 late Saturday and Sunday before he drifted to his current price. A big question bettors must ask is whether he will be shorter than 20-1 when they actually run for the roses. Don’t ask me. Recent history shows I will be wrong.
Basin (20-1). Charlatan’s torrid early pace proved too much for Basin. He faded from two lengths back in the second turn to finish six lengths up the track in second But when they eventually race 1¼ miles, what are the chances he will have to keep up with a pacesetter going out in 22.88, 46.08 and 1:09.68? Even though he has not won since the Grade 1 Hopeful last summer at Saratoga, futures players have bet him to the shortest price in Steve Asmussen’s deep stable. Yet I am not entirely convinced this is Asmussen’s best chance for his first Derby win.
Rushie (125-1). This was the colt who lost by 10¼ lengths to Charlatan in March back home at Santa Anita. The two were almost literally closer to one another Saturday, when they won back-to-back races. Yes, right before Charlatan’s Arkansas Derby victory, Rushie finished first in an 8½-furlong allowance. No longer just a maiden winner, trainer Mike McCarthy’s colt by Liam’s Map delivered as a 3-1 favorite. With Joel Rosario his fourth jockey in as many starts, Rushie purposefully stalked the early pace, took the lead at the top of the stretch and lugged in on his way to a 1¼-length victory. But take heed. He has yet to face stakes company, and he is not yet nominated for the Triple Crown, so Rushie right now is an underlay.
Derby futures: Who’s not?
Tiz The Law (4-1). It really is not fair to say he is not hot. He is still the futures co-favorite, but his odds drifted from 7-2 because of Nadal and Charlatan fever. In other words, Tiz The Law was guilty only of being idle. But he still has two Grade 1 wins, he is still 4-for-4 on dry tracks and he still has progressive Beyers of 90, 96 and 100. Connections appear to be pointing him to race next in New York, where the calendar is still a work in progress because of the coronavirus.
Background (250-1). Beware of shiny objects, the most misleading of which are runaway winners in maiden races. That is exactly what Oaklawn Park habitue Background was three months ago when he won by 4½ lengths in an 8½-furlong race. He shortened from a 150-1 opener to 60-1 in the futures. But he has gone the wrong way since. Trained by journeyman Michael Puhich, he tired to an unimpressive third in an 8½-furlong allowance in March, was over his head finishing ninth last month in the 9-furlong, $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes and then looked like a best-of-the-rest horse coming in third Saturday in a 8½-furlong allowance. Maybe he could be a stakes horse, but Background is certainly not at the classic level.
Wrecking Crew (300-1). He was supposed to be in Charlatan’s division of the Arkansas Derby but was scratched on the eve of the race. Trainer Peter Miller said he was the victim of a “gotcha” in the medication rules. Still only a maiden winner, the Sky Kingdom ridgling peaked last fall when he got through early traffic to finish third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. A poor start left him to finish last in the four-horse Los Alamitos Futurity, yet his futures price stood firm at 80-1. He shortened to 70-1 before his 3-year-old debut two months ago, when he finished fifth in the Grade 2 San Felipe at Santa Anita. That drifted him to 200-1, where he stood before last weekend. Now his future is up in the air.