To Baffert or not to Baffert in Kentucky

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Baffert_w_stopwatch
Trainer Bob Baffert and his horses may be banned from Churchill Downs, but they might yet show up next week in Pool 1 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager. (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

Do not envy the work of four men meeting here this week. A no-nonsense racing secretary, a young executive who recruits new wagering business and two professional spokesmen have been tasked with choosing 22 horses for next week’s Kentucky Derby Future Wager.

Usually, it is routine work that Ben Huffman, Gary Palmisano, Darren Rogers and Kevin Kerstein have been called to do. Most years the toughest part of their job is deciding whether a borderline contender for the Derby should be the last horse included or the first one excluded. It is not, however, like kicking someone completely out of the race. Just out of selective consideration for bettors. And just for now.

That job got complicated May 9. That was when Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert announced that newly wreathed Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a drug test. Less than a month later Baffert and his horses were banned for two years from Churchill Downs. Pending the outcome of legal and bureaucratic challenges, he is off limits from the 2022 and 2023 runnings of the Kentucky Derby.

What about his horses? They may not be able to earn qualifying points while they are under the care of Baffert or his acolytes, but their owners could transfer them to other trainers. So they might yet find their way into the May 7 Run for the Roses.

That brings this story back to Messrs. Huffman, Palmisano, Rogers and Kerstein – and to a talented, undefeated, 2-year-old colt. Should Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Corniche, trained by Baffert and already the wildly short 6-1 futures favorite in Las Vegas, be one of the 22 horses included for individual consideration by pari-mutuel bettors in next week’s first pool of the KDFW?

When asked that very question, Rogers, in his role as chief spokesman for the Derby, said, “The field for Pool 1 will be announced Monday, Nov. 22.” Pressed about the Baffert conundrum, Rogers repeated, “The field for Pool 1will be announced Monday, Nov. 22.”

This is not to suggest Rogers or the other three men on the KDFW selection committee really know the answer to the question. If there is a safe bet here, it is that they will have marching orders delivered to them from up high. It is odds-on that company CEO Bill Carstanjen and racetrack president Mike Anderson will tell the group whether they are allowed to choose Baffert horses. Period.

Speaking with their dollars, bettors will take note. If Corniche is one of the select 22, history suggests he will be about a 5-1 wagering choice after about $250,000 in pari-mutuel wagers are collected during the long Thanksgiving weekend. The pattern of past years also says the “all others” option, the one that covers every 2-year-old not among the chosen 22, will be the 6-5 favorite.

But what if Churchill extends its adamance beyond the ban on Baffert and his horses, beyond the declaration that they are ineligible to earn qualifying points in Derby preps? If Corniche and his stablemates are not among the 22 individual horses, they would still be available to horseplayers who choose the “all others” option and make it a most unattractive, odds-on underlay.

What’s more, the likely second choice after “all others” might be Jack Christopher, the would-be favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile before he was scratched. This week, the colt trained by Chad Brown had surgery to repair his left front cannon bone. The BloodHorse reported that Jack Christopher will miss the next two months. If that is true, he will be back in plenty of time for the important Derby preps.

If it is not true, ... well, stop right there. Brown has a history of being very patient and even very stealth with recovering horses. Normally he buttons down the news about injuries, especially if a horse goes on the shelf for a while. Jack Christopher’s 102 Beyer Speed Figure may be the best of any 2-year-old in 2021. But when it comes to uncertainties surrounding fitness, bettors are a skeptical bunch.

So why will Jack Christopher necessarily be the top individual choice in the KDFW’s first pool if Corniche is not in? Because the next most logical horse, Messier, is trained by Baffert. If he, too, is excluded from the group of 22, the laws of math say the “all others” option will be pounded into even shorter odds.

All this blindly presumes Baffert must have the best Derby horses because he is Baffert, the man who for better or worse has won the Derby a record seven times. Serious horseplayers, though, do not bet blindly. Those who choose to fade the current crop of Baffert horses will look elsewhere and may find pari-mutuel value that is unusual so early in the KDFW.

That is an oxymoron, isn’t it? Serious horseplayers are rarely mentioned in the same breath as the KDFW, especially since at least seven times as many fixed-odds options are available to bettors who look at Caesars at William Hill and, soon, Circa Sports (see below).

Since it was established in 2016, the Thanksgiving weekend KDFW pool always has attracted the smallest handle. The biggest pots of money are collected in mid-February, when the one and only Kentucky Oaks Future Wager also is offered, and in the last pool five weeks before the Derby.

Maybe by President’s Day, owners’ strategies for the Baffert horses will be more clear. Or maybe the wheels of justice will have creaked a little closer to a resolution of the 2021 Kentucky Derby controversy. Or maybe Corniche and Messier will be sidetracked for whatever reason. Time has a way of settling all the dust.

With any luck, the racing secretary, the wagering executive and the two spokesmen may not saddled with someone else’s tough call about horses that may or may not be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. Bettors might enjoy that clarity, too.

Racing notes and comments

Which Channel Cat (4-1 morning line) will show up Saturday at Aqueduct for the Grade 2 Red Smith Stakes? Will it be the millionaire who led at every call last spring in the Man O’ War at Belmont Park? Or will it be the horse who has looked every bit an aging 6-year-old, the one who has lost his last three races by an average of 6¾ lengths? The correct answer to that question holds the key to the 1⅜-mile race on Aqueduct’s inner-turf course. Trainer Jack Sisterson is adding blinkers, suggesting John Velázquez will try to have the horse sired by English Channel on the early lead. It is significant that Serve The King (3-1), runner-up in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, and Value Engineering (8-1), a class-jumping allowance winner, are representing Brown in the 10-horse field. Soldier Rising (5-1), a 3-year-old gelding who cut his teeth in France, will get some attention for his close, second-place finish in this summer’s Saratoga Derby. It says here this is Channel Cat’s race to win. Or lose. A partly cloudy, 50-degree day is forecast for the Red Smith, posted for Saturday at 3:43 p.m. EST.

Obligatory (5-2) has been in fast company this year. The 3-year-old filly by Curlin finished second in the Acorn and Cotillion stakes, both Grade 1 races. Trained by Bill Mott and ridden by Joel Rosario, she faces seven rivals Saturday in the Grade 3 Chilukki Stakes, a one-turn mile on the main track at Churchill Downs. Obligatory tries to rebound from a sixth-place disappointment as the 5-2 favorite in last month’s Grade 2 Raven Run, a seven-furlong race at Keeneland. Matera (3-1), who won the Groupie Doll this summer at Ellis Park, cuts back from a fourth-place finish in a two-turn, Grade 3 race at Churchill. Trained by Brad Cox and ridden by Florent Géroux, this 4-year-old Tapit filly is the choice in this race that lacks obvious pace. Yes, it is chalky, but Matera over Obligatory and California shipper Miss Bigly (3-1) looks like the play in the Chilukki, scheduled for a dry, cloudy, 55-degree Saturday at 5:36 p.m. EST.

Only one of the horses in Saturday’s open-company, Grade 3 Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar is coming off a win, and Established (6-1) is the most overmatched in the field of eight. That makes it hard to make a compelling case for this 1⅛-mile race. Baffert’s inscrutable Eight Rings (7-2) makes the quick turnaround from a fourth-place finish two weeks ago in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Stablemate Azul Coast (4-1), starting one stall to the left of Eight Rings, was an allowance winner this summer at Del Mar before he wilted to a next-to-last-place finish in last month’s Awesome Again at Santa Anita. Second in this race last year, Midcourt (4-1) is back after walking last across the finish line in the Awesome Again. I will be all in on Kiss Today Goodbye (5-1). Winless since he finished first last December in the Grade 2 San Antonio Stakes at Santa Anita, he comes off the bench on the heels of a bullet work last Saturday. Trainer Eric Kruljac is adding blinkers and jockey Kent Desormeaux. The hope is this 4-year-old Cairo Prince colt will rate the pace before pouncing late. On a dry, overcast, 65-degree day, the Native Diver is scheduled to start Saturday at 7 p.m. EST.

Circa Sports is expected to roll out its first Derby futures on or around Dec. 1. Former risk supervisor Paul Zilm will return in a free-lance role to help sportsbook director Matt Metcalf write the odds. This will be Circa’s third year competing with what is now Caesars Sportsbook at William Hill Nevada in the Derby futures marketplace. Because of the specifics of its Nevada gaming licenses, Circa will take in-person bets on the Derby only at The D and the Golden Gate casinos in downtown Las Vegas in addition to statewide access on its betting app.

Finally, two counters are being added here. They are self-explanatory. Friday marks 106 days since Gov. Phil Murphy signed fixed-odds horse wagering into law in New Jersey, yet there is still no fixed-odds horse wagering. Friday also marks 754 days since Nevada and Churchill Downs stopped doing business with one another. Carry on.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features a preview of graded stakes in Kentucky, California and New York with Channel Cat’s trainer Jack Sisterson, Churchill Downs TV analyst James Scully and Race Day Las Vegas handicapper Ralph Siraco. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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