By Bill Finley
Just like riding a bicycle.
Starting his first horses since serving a 90-day suspension issued by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, trainer Bob Baffert won the two races in which he had entered horses on the Saturday card at Los Alamitos. Baffert's victories included a win by High Connection (Connect) in the Los Alamitos Derby. It was Baffert's sixth straight win in the race that used to be known as the Swaps S. and his 12th overall in the mile-and-an-eighth contest.
Baffert had last started horses on Apr. 2. Afterward, he began serving a suspension, the result of Medina Spirit (Protonico) testing positive for the medication betamethasone in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby.
Baffert began his afternoon with a win by Rhetoric (Quality Road) in the day's fifth race, a maiden special weight event for 3-year-olds. The Baffert-trained first-time-starter Western Cape (Curlin) finished third behind his stablemate.
“There's nothing like being back and here I am at Los Alamitos,” Baffert said in an interview with TVG following the maiden win. “Everybody has been welcoming me. There have been a lot of well-wishers, people glad to see me back. I'm glad to be back because I really missed it. While I was gone, Sean McCarthy, Jimmy Barnes, the whole team, they did a fantastic job. They kept it together. Here I am and I'm looking forward. I'm getting ready for Del Mar. This is where it all started for me, training quarter horses, so it's always been a special place for me. I'm just glad to be back.”
Despite Baffert's record in the Los Alamitos Derby, the betting public made Slow Down Andy (Nyquist) the favorite for trainer Doug O'Neill. But High Connection, ridden by Juan Hernandez, got past his rival in mid-stretch to prevail. He paid $5.40. Baffert also sent out Doppelganger (Into Mischief) in the race. He finished fourth.
Baffert will have one starter Sunday at Los Alamitos, Spooky Lady (Ghostzapper) in a maiden special weight race for fillies and mares.
Baffert remains ineligible for now to race at Churchill Downs, Churchill Downs-owned tracks and at the NYRA tracks. NYRA and Churchill suspended the trainer, a penalty separate from the Kentucky Racing Commission suspension.
Baffert returned to work on July 3, showing up at his barn at Santa Anita.
“It feels like the first day of school,” Baffert told the Los Angeles Times after his first day back.
Baffert said Barnes, his longtime assistant, was the first to greet him.
“He came over and gave me a big ole hug,” Baffert told the Times. “He said, 'Thank goodness, you're back.' I haven't talked to Jimmy since I left. Our whole barn is like a family, I've known them all for so long.”
Baffert told the Times that most of his owners stood by him during his suspension. He did lose at least one important horse as 2021 2-year-old champ 'TDN Rising Star' Corniche (Quality Road) was transferred to the Todd Pletcher barn.
“I lost some horses. Some owners are still waiting [to see what happens],” he told the Times. “I lost Corniche. That hurt. All in all, I've got great group of owners. They hung there in there with me, they know the truth and the facts.”
Baffert has fought all the charges and allegations thrown his way, but did admit to the Times that he made at least one mistake along the way.
“If I had to do anything different, I wouldn't have had a press conference,” Baffert told the paper. “But it was out there and [the media] was waiting….I was trying to get ahead of it. I was convinced after talking to my veterinarians, that [the positive] was impossible. Then it dawned on them 48 hours later, be careful with the [ointment] Otomax.”
During his absence, most of his horses were trained by his former assistant Tim Yakteen and McCarthy. Racing for Yakteen, Taiba (Gun Runner) won the GI Runhappy Santa Anita Derby before finishing 12th in the GI Kentucky Derby. Taiba, along with stablemate Pinehurst (Twirling Candy), have been nominated to the GI TVG.com Haskell S. on July 23 at Monmouth Park. Baffert has won the Haskell nine times.
Baffert can also begin to focus on the upcoming Del Mar meet, where he normally unveils what is always a well-stocked arsenal of 2-year-old talent. Baffert had 20 winners at last year's summer meet at Del Mar, finishing second in the standings behind Peter Miller, who had 26 wins.