Can Anyone Beat Baffert? It Seems Unlikely

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Charlatan | Coady

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The Week in Review, by Bill Finley

The GI Kentucky Derby is a long way off and a lot can happen between now and Sept. 5, but after what went down Saturday at Oaklawn Park, it looks like the only question left to be answered is which Bob Baffert-trained horse will win the Derby?

That’s not getting ahead of ourselves or hyperbole. After what happened Saturday in the split divisions of the GI Arkansas Derby, it’s stating the obvious. In Nadal (Blame), Charlatan (Speightstown) and Authentic (Into Mischief), he trains three 3-year-olds who are all undefeated and are all potential superstars. There are 328 nominees to the Triple Crown that are not trained by Baffert and the only one on the list that looks to have a realistic shot of winning the Derby is GI Curlin Florida Derby winner Tiz the Law (Constitution).

That was pretty much the sentiment before Baffert’s horses arrived at Oaklawn. Yet, there did seem to be a few potential stumbling blocks for his horses. Would Charlatan, who was light on earnings, even get to run in the Arkansas Derby? Why was Nadal only winning by small margins? If need be, could his horses rate or were they all one dimensional speedballs? In what was nothing short of a perfect afternoon for the Baffert stable, both horses got to run, they didn’t have to face off against one another and both answered some questions.

Charlatan looks like the second coming of Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy). He’s following the same trajectory–late start to his career, allowance win, Grade I win. The only difference so far is that Justify picked up his first stakes win in the GI Santa Anita Derby.

Despite blowing the field away in his first two starts, Charlatan still had to answer the question of what would happen once he got into stakes company. It may be true that his division was the weaker of the two, but it was still a Grade I race, and Charlatan demolished his rivals, winning by six lengths. If the Derby were run tomorrow, he would be the favorite.

Even as talented as Charlatan is, in a normal year a critic could at least point to his lack of experience. On the first Saturday in May, he was making just his third lifetime start and had not raced as a 2-year-old. Even though Justify overcame similar hurdles, it’s still asking a lot for a horse with so little experience to win the Derby. Now, Baffert can take his time. He has four months to get some more racing and seasoning into Charlatan. If he’s this good now, how good might he be in September?

Nadal hadn’t shown the brilliance that Charlatan had. He had won the GII San Vicente S. by three-quarters of a length, the same margin by which he won the GII Rebel S. While Charlatan had reeled off successive Beyer numbers of 106 and 105, Nadal’s best had been a 98.

He may not have been the recipient of Charlatan-like hype, but his Arkansas Derby win was also something special. He won by three lengths over a good horse in GII Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo (Uncle Mo) and did so decisively.

The best part of Nadal’s win may have been that he showed he could relax off the lead. Wells Bayou (Lookin at Lucky) was sent hard from the gate by Florent Geroux to get the lead and, on Nadal, Joel Rosario wisely let him go. Nadal relaxed nicely and didn’t take over until on the far turn. That may suit him well in the Kentucky Derby. All three of Baffert’s stars have a ton of early speed and he’s going to have to figure out how to avoid a speed duel of his own making.

Who was better Saturday, Nadal or Charlatan? Nadal’s race was slightly faster. He covered the mile-and-an-eighth in 1:48.34, while Charlatan’s time was 1:48.49. Nadal got a 98 Beyer and Charlatan’s number was a 96. But that’s just splitting hairs. The “who’s better” question probably won’t be answered until they meet.

Authentic spent his day relaxing at Santa Anita, but that doesn’t mean he should be overshadowed by Nadal and Charlatan. He is also undefeated, has also shown brilliant speed and form and could be prove to be the best of he three.

The only major 3-year-old race that is all but certain to be run over the next five weeks is the GI Santa Anita Derby, which is now set to go on June 6. That seems like a logical spot for Authentic. In the meantime, Baffert may have to get creative in order to continue to keep the three apart, but can’t map out a schedule until more tracks announce stakes schedules that had to redone because of coronavirus shutdowns.

It might be too much to ask that all three are still undefeated come Derby Day or even that they all remain in top form. But it could happen. Put these three in the same starting gate on Sept. 5 and this Derby will be among the most interesting and exciting runnings ever.

Kudos to Oaklawn

You can’t heap enough praise on to Oaklawn Park and the Cella family for their efforts to keep Oaklawn open without any interruptions. With the track’s casino having to close and with pressures for all businesses to shut down because of the coronavirus, they easily could have ended the meet early and said, “See you next year.”

Yes, staying open yielded eye-popping handle numbers, like the $40.9 million Oaklawn handled Saturday. Entering this year’s meet, the record single-day handle had been $16.2 million. But that was not management’s only motivating factor. They never lost track of their obligation to do what was best for the sport. Knowing that 3-year-olds would need a race to run around the original date of the Kentucky Derby, they moved the Arkansas Derby to May 2. They did the same for their GI Kentucky Oaks prep, the GIII Fantasy S. It was run Friday. It cost Oaklawn an extra $250,000 to split the Arkansas Derby, but they never hesitated to do so. Throughout March and April, while so many other tracks were forced to close, they offered great racing, which was good for the sport, the owners, trainers and the fans. Just imagine what those months would have been like with Oaklawn Park.

The Virtual Derby

The virtual Kentucky Derby, won by Secretariat, was exactly what it was supposed to be–a lot of fun. The quality of the computer-generated race was outstanding and the virtual versions of the 13 Triple Crown winners almost looked like the real thing. There was some drama in the way the race unfolded and Triple Crown announcer Larry Collmus added his voice to the proceedings. All along, there was good-natured debate. Was Secretariat an overlay? Would there be a speed duel? When it was over, a meaningful amount of money was donated to charities dealing with the coronavirus outbreak.

Yes, we’d all rather see the real thing, but this was a welcome and enjoyable diversion. Who do you like in the virtual Preakness?

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