Try as much as possible, horse racing can’t get away from Bob Baffert or his adorable animals.
The Hall of Fame coach, who has racked up seven Kentucky Derby wins and two Triple Crown wins in the past decade, played a major role in events on and off the track in the last week of January. With the Derby less than 100 days off, Baffert’s personalities remain in the spotlight whether or not sports writers stop chatting about the Super Bowl long enough to notice.
On and off the field, Baffert is all over the map. 3-year-old Newgring scored his second win in the Kentucky Derby Prep Saturday in the $750,000 Third Division in the Southwest at Oaklon Racing Casino Resort. Baffert continues to have hot springs favorite state status at an unwelcome time in Louisville, sending Newgrange east after the third-class colt won the Champs at Santa Anita four weeks ago. This is despite being paid $10,000 in fines to reclaim Oaklon’s 2020 wins by Charlatan and Gamine to test positive for lidocaine, and thus the Arkansas Racing Commission lifted the hosts’ ruling (including the suspension) against the coach.
On Thursday last week, Baffert testified during a New York Racing Association hearing to help determine whether he will be suspended from Aqueduct, Belmont and Saratoga. A judge ruled last July that the NYRA had acted unconstitutionally in suspending Baffert without due process, but said the NYRA had that power once the coach heard a hearing. The hearing ended on Friday.
The Kentucky hosts will begin a hearing next Monday to determine whether Baffert’s coach Medina Spirit will be disqualified from his 2021 Kentucky Derby win. Baffert announced two days after the May 7 race that Medina Spirit, the frontrunner winner at Churchill Downs, had tested positive for betamethasone after the derby. Bookmakers who bet on runner-up Mandalon sue Baffert and Churchill Downs Inc.
After Baffert was suspended indefinitely, CDI extended the ban until the 2023 Kentucky Derby. Baffert trainees are ineligible for Kentucky Derby qualifying points in races such as the Southwest, Sham and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the latter of which was won by prospective two-year-old Champion Cornish, who was coached by Baffert. There is no information on whether any of these horses will be moved to another barn or whether they will collect the points earned on the track.
Meanwhile, the flutter over the Medina Spirit continues even though the horse died on December 7 of a suspected heart attack after an exercise in Santa Anita.
Some notable owners have moved their horses out of Baffert’s barn. One of those horses, Life Is Good, a contestant in the Kentucky Derby this time last year, won a $3 million Pegasus World Cup Class Invitational in Florida against the PC Classic and winner of the Knicks Go Horse of the Year award. Hall of Famer Todd Pletcher now coaches Life Is Good as well as After Sea, last year’s Oaklawn winner for Baffert who later earned a Grade 2 Vosburgh at Belmont and placed in the BC Sprint. After nearly two months in Oaklawn, we watched the Concert Tour, last year’s Rebel second-tier winner for Baffert, run his first race with Brad Cox, who coaches Knicks Joe and Mandalon.
Whatever happens in court, it probably won’t do much to solve the major problems of horse racing. A study revealed that there were fewer trainers who discouraged horses in the past year, with more “corporate trainers,” as one Oaklawn-based jockey calls them, gaining runners. Mom-and-pop stables go the way of the little postcard. Meanwhile, the sport is more gambling-driven than ever but with short pitches the norm on some tracks, especially in California. On a cheerful note, the race is still big in Arkansas, with 27,000 people participating in the Southwest, if it becomes a niche sport in other jurisdictions.
This was intended as a review for the Southwest Stakes, which Newgrange won with a late shot from John Velazquez after sitting too far off the pace. This new dimension of the horse’s two-time straight lead emboldened Baffert, who watched TV from California while right-hand man Jimmy Barnes herded a colt in Hot Springs.
“Very proud of the way he ran,” Baffert said by phone. Velazquez “He said he had been struggling with the track a little earlier and I could tell. Normally, he’s in the lead. But all the way in the rear he’s in a good place.”
Barber Road climbed to second again, as did the Smarty Jones mile on Jan. 1 when he broke away from 10th, and Ben Diesel in third after giving John Court a thrill. “The rail opened up in the extension, but he looked and saw something (drift out) that kind of took its momentum,” said the 61-year-old rider. “I had to stay after him and he responded well.”
Cafud, the opening round winner of six furlongs, finished fourth after setting the pace. Others – Smarty Jones winner, Dash Attack and Osbourne among them – may be heard from another day. Checking in February 26 at the $1 million Class II Renegade, Baffert said he hadn’t decided if it would be Newgrange’s next start.
Ricardo Santana Jr., aboard Barber Road, said the score: “We don’t have any excuses. He was the much better winner. We’ll see when we come back again.”
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