By T. D. Thornton
Saturday’s long, drawn-out disqualification of McKinzie (Street Sense) in favor of Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) in the GII San Felipe S. not only rates as the story of the week, but it’s the tale of an otherwise humdrum Triple Crown prep season so far.
The points races on the Road to the GI Kentucky Derby series into early March have been largely hallmarked by favorites falling by the wayside and highly hyped sophomores coming off extended layoffs only to deliver subpar performances. But the Mar. 10 showdown between California’s two top-ranked 3-year-olds lived up to its billing with a scintillating stretch drive complete with bumping, grinding, and a little old-fashioned race riding, with the undefeated McKinzie, piloted by Mike Smith, crossing the finish line a head better than Eclipse Award finalist Bolt d’Oro and jockey Javier Castellano.
Then the Santa Anita Park stewards intervened in “deus ex machina” fashion to reverse the outcome.
The judges took 12 minutes to scrutinize two distinct close-contact incidents. Voting unanimously, according to chief state steward Darrel McHargue, the stewards determined that there was “inconclusive” evidence to blame either jockey for bumping at the quarter pole that was immediately preceded by Castellano, on the outside, delivering a right-handed crack of the crop that appeared to cause Bolt d’Oro to put the squeeze on rail-running McKinzie. Later, inside the sixteenth pole, McHargue said it was “clear” that McKinzie “came out under a left-handed whip and shifted…Bolt d’Oro out, off his path, and cost him a better placing.”
A subplot to the story boiled over in the immediate aftermath of the disqualification, with McKinzie’s trainer, Bob Baffert, losing his customary cool. He termed the disqualification “bullshit,” adding that Castellano “had a better story” and “apparently talked [the stewards] into” their decision. Baffert also threatened to run McKinzie somewhere other than at his home base of Santa Anita for his next stakes, and he scratched Hoppertunity (Any Given Saturday), who is owned by the same partnership as McKinzie, from the GI Santa Anita H. later on Saturday’s card.
By Sunday morning though, Baffert was a touch more reflective on the outcome of the DQ, although he still doesn’t believe the stewards got it right. He spoke to TDN via phone while on his way to the airport to fly to Ocala for this week’s 2-year-old auction.
“I’m still surprised that they took him down, only because at the top of the stretch you could see it was a flagrant foul by Javier trying to make it tight, and he overdid it and hit [McKinzie] and bounced him sideways,” Baffert said. “And I thought there, if I run second, they’re going to put me up anyway. [McKinzie] brushed [Bolt d’Oro] a little bit at the end, and [the stewards] thought that was enough. The [quarter pole incident] didn’t matter to them. All I know, it took way too long [to adjudicate the race]. The horses are both out there, they’re tired, they’ve run hard, they’re hot, it’s raining, and they were out there for almost 15 minutes like that. That part probably upset me more than anything. I just wished they’d be a little bit quicker. To me, it’s a sign that they had trouble justifying taking him down. The thing about it, it was an exciting race, the horses threw it down, they let it all hang out, two good horses. Unfortunately, the stewards had to decide it.
“Once they hang ‘official,’ it’s over,” Baffert continued. “You’ve just got to just turn the page, go on, and hope your horse is fine. I saw the stewards later on. I asked them how they voted, they said unanimous. I asked them what took so long about it, but they didn’t really want to get into a conversation with me. It’s one of those things. I know them. They’re good guys. They made the call, and that’s their job. What are you going to do?
“Javier Castellano, I talked to him,” Baffert added. “He came by, he felt so bad. I said, ‘Why’d you hit him at the turn, why’d you do that, come over?’ He said, ‘Well, I was just trying to make it tight and I might have overdone it a little bit.'”
Smith and Castellano are good enough friends that Smith represented Castellano back in November concerning two incidents at a Del Mar post-Breeders’ Cup stewards’ film review after Castellano had flown home back East. But the two were visibly jawing at one another in the gallop-out after the San Felipe.
Castellano, in his own words, told the Santa Anita press notes team after the race that “I was concerned a little bit in the last part of the race, especially around the last sixteenth. I think that my horse tried to hold back to force inside and we had some contact. They say [Smith] tried to intimidate my horse and that is why I couldn’t get past him. I wish it would’ve just been the two horses running straight in the race. We were the best two horses in the race. I just want to see who the better horse is.”
Smith’s version was different: “That last hit where he hit me in the ass, he turned me out. I was just trying to ride my own race and he was on top of me. At the quarter pole, after the quarter pole, and through the lane he hit me and turned me out. I mean, he’s got the whole racetrack and he’s on top of me on the fence. Any time it takes that long and you’re the one who won, you certainly don’t like it. I didn’t feel that I did anything. I was forced out. He hit me hard behind and it took me out. It turns you out. Well…you win some that way and I guess you lose some that way.”
On Sunday, Baffert quipped with a rueful laugh, “There’s two Hall-of Famers race-riding. That’s the way it ended up, and unfortunately, the whole race was ruined by the stewards. They got involved, and they didn’t have to get involved.
“But the main thing is, my horse ran hard,” Baffert continued. “This race will really tighten him up. He looked great after the race and he looked great [Sunday] morning, so we’re really happy, mainly with his effort. I’ve always thought he was a good horse, and he should be better for the next one.”
And will McKinzie indeed ship out of town for his next Derby prep?
“I’ll probably [aim for] the [Apr. 7 GI] Santa Anita Derby. If he needs another week, I’ll go somewhere else. I’m not sure. I’ll just play it by ear,” Baffert said.
And his reason for scratching Hoppertunity?
“I scratched because all of a sudden the rain came, they started floating the track, and he doesn’t like that kind of track,” Baffert said. As for a possible next start in the G1 Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse Mar. 31, he added, “I’m not sure yet. I’m just going to wait a week.”