Here We Go Again: Can Anyone Beat Baffert in the Derby?

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Concert Tour running away with the Rebel | Coady

The Week in Review, by Bill Finley

The year changes and so do the names of the horses. But the story remains the same. It's no longer about beating a particular horse in the GI Kentucky Derby, it's about trying to beat the stable that has an unprecedented hammerlock on the race. Can anyone beat Bob Baffert?

After this weekend's results, it's looking more and more like that is going to be hard to do. Baffert already had the early favorite for the Derby in the ultra-talented Life Is Good (Into Mischief), who was bet down to a ridiculously low 2-1 in the Derby Future Wager. His win in the GII San Felipe S. had been the most impressive race run by a 3-year-old this year.

But now there is some competition. Concert Tour (Street Sense) ran away from seven rivals in the GII Rebel S. Saturday at Oaklawn, dominating quality horses like Caddo River (Hard Spun) and Keepmeinmind (Laoban). On paper, he looks a lot like Life Is Good. Both are unbeaten at 3-for-3, have won two stakes, and are coming off sizzling performances.

“From day one, we knew he was something special,” Baffert said of Concert Tour.

For good measure, Baffert finished second in the Rebel, a race he has won eight times since 2010, with Hozier (Pioneerof the Nile). About two and a half hours earlier, he unleashed another horse with monster potential. Triple Tap (Tapit), a half-brother to Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), romped in a maiden race at Santa Anita and will, no doubt, be heard from again.

Not that any of this was any sport of surprise. What we have now is a trainer who is feasting off of his own success. As Baffert wins more and more races with top 3-year-olds, more and more owners flock to him. As more owners flock to him, the better his stable gets. Lather, rinse, repeat.

He trains for an All-Star team of owners-Godolphin, Coolmore, Gary and Mary West, Juddmonte, WinStar and China Horse Club, SF Racing, Starlight Racing and Madaket Stables, Stonestreet, Zedan Racing Stables. His barn is stocked full of the best bred, most expensive horses in racing. No one else's compares.

“You can't do it unless you gets the results and I worked hard at it,” Baffert said. “It took me years and years to get here. My program is to get young horses and try to get to the Classics and Breeders' Cup races with them. I don't train a lot of horses. I like to keep it as a very elite stable. We want to be in all the big races, all the big shows.”

But he is not going to rest on any laurels. The 2020 race to the Kentucky Derby proved that just about everything has to go right to win the Derby. Baffert won split divisions of the GI Arkansas Derby with Nadal (Blame) and Charlatan (Speightstown), Neither one made it to the Derby. Instead, Baffert came to town with two horses. After Thousand Words fell in the paddock and had to be scratched, Baffert was left with one horse. It just happened to be Authentic (Into Mischief)

“Last year I was really strong, but found out how quickly things can fall apart,” Baffert said. “So I try not to get too far ahead of myself. I was strong when I had Real Quiet (Quiet American) and Indian Charlie (In Excess {Ire}) and when I had Point Given (Thunder Gulch) and Congaree (Arazi). But these two (Life Is Good and Concert Tour) are really strong.”

Baffert has five horses among the Top 20 on the Derby points list and all five could make the race. It looks like Triple Tap won't be there. It would be very hard for a horse to make the race after debuting in mid-March. Baffert's 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy) didn't make his first start until Feb. 18, but that extra month made a world of difference as it allowed Baffert to get in preps in March and April.

“Triple Tap is a little late to the party,” he said. “It would be a little tough to make the Derby. We want to develop him the right way. If the Derby was in September again, like it was last year, we could do it. I'll have to see how he is in a couple of weeks, but I don't want to do anything rash with him. I can see him winning a Grade I stakes. He's that caliber of a horse. I just want him to develop the right way.”

Baffert said he'd like to get an allowance race into Triple Tap and, since he doesn't think such a race would fill in California, he may wind up running him next at Keeneland.

Baffert will be shooting for his seventh win in the Derby, which would move him past Ben Jones as the winningest trainer in the race's history.

“I don't think about that,” he said. “You just want to get there with a horse that has a good chance. When you go with a horse that you think has a chance to win, it's exciting. If you go with a horse who has no chance of winning it's not exciting. It might be exciting for the owner but not for me.”

At Churchill Downs, he will meet a lot of worthy opponents, a list that right now includes Essential Quality (Tapit) and Greatest Honour (Tapit). So the race isn't over. Far from it. But beating Baffert, never easy, has never looked more difficult.

A Stellar Apple Blossom

The other big winner over the weekend was GI Beholder Mile winner Swiss Skydiver (Daredevil). She looked terrific making her 4-year-old debut, easily beating back the challenge of six others, including the Baffert-trained As Time Goes By (American Pharoah). Her win sets up the potential of Swiss Skydiver-Monomoy Girl (Tapizar) II in the GI Apple Blossom S. at Oaklawn. In their first meeting in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, Swiss Skydiver lost all chance when stumbling at the start. She will be out for revenge. Monomoy Girl will be out to prove that no filly or mare can beat her. Could be some race.

Aqueduct Over the Years

Up until 1976, when the inner track was installed, Aqueduct would always open in mid-March after a winter hiatus and New York horseplayers flocked to the track for opening day. Fifty years ago, the opening day crowd, on a Monday, was 40,025. One of the big stories on the day was the increase in price for the Morning Telegraph, which preceded the Daily Racing Form. The price was hiked from 75 cents to $1. But the Aqueduct subway special was still going for $1.

Opening day was splashed all over the New York Times sports pages, which noted that Aqueduct had about twice as many fans as did a heavyweight championship fight at Madison Square Garden. Good Behaving won the featured Swift S, paying $11.80. Angel Cordero, Jr., still around as a jockey agent, rode the winner.

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