Can Game Winner Break Baffert's Juvenile Curse?

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Game Winner | Horsephotos

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The trainer, who may be the best ever when it comes to winning the GI Kentucky Derby, won Friday's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile with an undefeated horse that will be named 2-year-old champion. The talent, the pedigree, the trainer, the 2-year-old season…every box is checked. Can we just concede right now that Game Winner (Candy Ride {Arg}) will win the 2019 Derby?

Not so fast.

It may not seem like it, but there are actually a few things about Bob Baffert that indicate that the trainer is mortal and the Breeders' Cup Juvenile is one of them.

This was the fourth time that Baffert has won the Juvenile and here are the histories of what happened to his previous winners following the Breeders' Cup:

New Year's Day (Street Cry {Ire}): The 2013 winner never ran again.

Midshipman (Unbridled's Song): The 2008 Juvenile winner did not make any of the Triple Crown races. He was sold to Godolphin and won only twice after the Breeders' Cup, in an allowance race at Belmont and in a $110,000 race in Dubai.

Vindication (Seattle Slew): He won the 2002 Breeders' Cup Juvenile and never ran again.

Meanwhile, Baffert has won the Derby five times and not one of those horses started in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Like most trainers, Baffert has changed the way he manages his horses over the last decade or so and now seems at his best when bringing horses along slowly when it comes to winning the Classic races. Justify (Scat Daddy) didn't make his first career start until Feb. 18 and American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile) was sidelined by an injury after winning the Sept. 27 GI FrontRunner S. (which was renamed in his honor this year) and did not reappear until the following year in the Mar. 14 GII Rebel S. If there was ever any temptation to push American Pharoah toward the Juvenile, Baffert resisted it.

None of which means Game Winner can't win the Kentucky Derby as there were things to like and not like about his race

The bay's Juvenile victory was a good one, but not a breathtaking one. Many will no doubt point to the fact that the horse he beat, Knicks Go (Paynter), was a 40-1 shot, and Game Winner didn't exactly blow him away. Also, Complexity (Maclean's Music), the second choice, threw in a clunker. Plus, the highly regarded Code of Honor (Noble Mission {GB}) was scratched. Game Winner's winning time of 1:43.67 was a hair slower than the fillies ran in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, where Jaywalk (Cross Traffic) won in 1:43.62.

The good news is that he overcame a less-than-perfect trip. A horse that is normally right on top of the pace at the outset, he was lackadaisical in the early going and wound up sitting seventh while four or five wide on the first turn. Under Joel Rosario, he made steady progress while playing catch-up to the leaders, but again went wide on the second turn. From the three path, he kept going and once he collared Knicks Go at the sixteenth-pole the race was no longer in doubt.

There's a long way to go between now and the 2019 Kentucky Derby, but right now Game Winner is absolutely the horse to beat May 4 and Baffert is the trainer to beat. But could he win with someone else? Some may look at Friday's card and wonder if Game Winner was not the best 2-year-old Baffert ran. That's how impressive Improbable (City Zip) was when winning the one-mile Street Sense S. by 7 1/4 lengths.

Because of the caches of the Kentucky Derby, most of the hype coming out of Friday's card will go to Game Winner. But by no means was he the most impressive winner on the day. That accolade goes to GI Juvenile Turf Fillies winner Newspaperofrecord (Ire) (Lope de Vega {Ire}). Had this been a more prominent Breeders' Cup race, her performance might well be regarded as one of the best in the history of the series.

Likely sensing that the inside was not the place to be on the Churchill turf course, Irad Ortiz, Jr., had Newspaperofrecord out in the middle of the track the entire trip. At the top of the stretch, she was only 1 1/2 lengths in front and when Ortiz called on her, she took off like a Nolan Ryan fastball. The 'TDN Rising Star' jumped away from the field in an instant and was then geared down before crossing the wire 6 3/4 lengths in front. Owner Seth Klarman and trainer Chad Brown might want to look into flights for Royal Ascot right now. She's too good to be running next year for the modest purses offered to 3-year-old turf fillies in the U.S..

The Breeders' Cup portion of the card kicked off with a win by Bulletin (City Zip) in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint for Todd Pletcher and the team that brought you Justify, owners WinStar Farm LLC, China Horse Club and SF Racing LLC. It's a bizarre Breeders' Cup for Pletcher. He is known for developing top dirt 3-year-olds, but all six of his Breeders' Cup starters have been entered in grass races. By City Zip, there's no reason to believe that Bulletin won't be able to handle the dirt. Surely, they'll give it a try.

In the Juvenile Fillies, Jaywalk proved that two turns and added distance was no problem for her. She could be part of a dynamic duo next year for Chuck Zacney's Cash Is King Stables, who is the part owner of both this filly and the very impressive 2-year-old colt prospect Maximus Mischief (Into Mischief).

In the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, there was an inquiry as Line of Duty (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) definitely bumped Uncle Benny (Declaration of War) approaching the wire, but it didn't appear to cost Uncle Benny the race and the stewards made the right call.

The Breeders' Cup keeps tinkering with the Friday format and never seems to stick to any one for too long. This year all the Breeders' Cup Friday races were for 2-year-olds. They picked a winner. The races were exciting, we saw some horses who we can't wait to see come back next year and the most important Breeders' Cup races were all saved for Saturday. That's the day they belong on. Let's hope this is a Friday schedule they will stick with for years to come.

 

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