Nadal an Ace for Transatlantic Team

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Nadal | Benoit photo

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The business of buying racehorses is a constant test of balancing risks and opportunities.

A month after Kerri Radcliffe signed for a son of Blame for $700,000-the joint highest price for a 2-year-old by the sire at auction-at Fasig-Tipton's Gulfstream Sale last March, one of the investors backed out. That left Radcliffe with an expensive colt on her hands, but an opportunity to put a transatlantic group of clients in on a horse she staunchly believed in.

The ownership group of George Bolton, best known for campaigning international stars like Curlin, Lady Aurelia and The Factor; Rancho Santa Fe businessman and private investor Mark Mathiesen, who has also enjoyed success in Australia this year with the Radcliffe-purchased filly Away Game (Aus) (Snitzel {Aus}); law firm partner and philanthropist Barry Lipman and French-based bloodstock agent Arthur Hoyeau have likely only just begun reaping the rewards in their investment in the colt now named Nadal, the unbeaten winner of last weekend's GII San Vicente S. who is hot on America's Triple Crown trail.

Radcliffe has a good affinity with Gulfstream's 2-year-old sale-she signed for Grade I winner Dream Tree (Uncle Mo) there in her breakout year as an agent in 2017-and she said Nadal was one of just two that made it on her list after the breeze show and inspections last year.

“He breezed like a monster and when you saw his breeze and saw how big he was, you couldn't quite figure out how that horse did that,” Radcliffe said. “He was a lovely horse, I really liked him, and Randy Bradshaw–who bought him as a yearling [for $65,000] and sold him there-said when I was looking at the horse, 'Kerri, this is a special horse.' I had two horses on my list to buy. The first one was Donna Veloce (Uncle Mo) [runner-up in two Grade Is last year at two]. My vet failed her, so Nadal was the only one left.”

Nadal joined the Bob Baffert stable shortly thereafter-“he was only ever going to Bob Baffert, he's just the perfect Baffert horse,” Radcliffe said-and soon began to turn heads working at Los Alamitos Racecourse, which is about an hour's drive south of Santa Anita Park and is used as a satellite location by many top Southern California trainers. It was soon time to move the bay to the main string at Santa Anita, and that's when the first bout of bad horse racing luck struck.

“He had been at Los Alamitos and breezing and Bob wanted him up at Santa Anita,” Radcliffe said. “On his way up on the van he got injured. He kicked out in the stall in the van and got his hind leg caught over the partition; we don't know how he didn't break his leg.”

Owners and trainer gave Nadal time to recuperate from that ordeal, but when the horse returned to the work tab, Baffert still wasn't satisfied.

“When we got him recovered from that he did a few more breezes and Bob said, 'this horse just isn't finishing his work off quite right.' And he had been breezing like a monster. Bob did some X-rays and he had some bone bruising, so Bob said, 'we need to give this horse a break to get over this.'”

Shortly after the calendar turned on his third birthday, Nadal was at last ready to make an afternoon appearance in a 6 1/2-furlong Santa Anita maiden special weight on Jan. 19. A touch slow from the one draw, Nadal worked his way up the rail to take the lead after about a furlong. He set fast fractions before drawing off in the stretch to win by four lengths under a hand ride, earning 'TDN Rising Star' status. The plan in the immediate aftermath was the Feb. 17 GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, but Radcliffe said the master trainer called a last-minute audible last week.

“Bob rang me just last week, very last minute,” she said. “The horse had worked on the Tuesday and worked unbelievable. We had been thinking the Southwest, but Bob said to me, 'I think we might just go to the San Vicente.' I said, 'ok, you're the trainer, it's up to you. I'm not going to argue with Mr. Baffert.'”

So, for the second time in three weeks, Radcliffe was on a flight from the UK to Southern California last weekend. And, not surprising given his record of handling 3-year-olds-two Triple Crowns and five Kentucky Derbys-Baffert was right. Nadal won the seven furlong GII San Vicente S. by a game three-quarters of a length after once again setting the tempo.

“The fractions he did were just insane,” Radcliffe said. “He went :21 in change, :44 flat, and 1:09. He's a big horse and for his second start that was a very big ask.”

The San Vicente, unlike the Southwest, didn't hold Kentucky Derby qualifying points, so Nadal still needs to win or hit the board in at least one official prep race to secure his spot in the 20-horse starting gate for the Run to the Roses. That opportunity will come in the Mar. 14 GII Rebel S. at Oaklawn Park, which Baffert has won with the likes of American Pharoah, The Factor and Lookin At Lucky.

While the Kentucky Derby's unique qualifying system makes it difficult to truly take things one race at a time with a developing 3-year-old, Radcliffe insisted that's just what the team is doing. It is not lost on her, though, that her trainer has some recent experience with taking an exciting colt who was unraced at two successfully through the Triple Crown.

“We're very excited, but we're taking it each day at a time,” the agent said. “It'd be nice to think he was as good as Justify or American Pharoah, but we'll just take baby steps at the moment.”

Radcliffe has started 2020 off strong, with the aforementioned Away Game winning the A$2-million Magic Millions 2YO Classic in Australia in early January. Just as Radcliffe has a habit of buying top-level horses at auction, she also names them after sporting celebrities when given the opportunity. That move resulted in American football star Rob Gronkowski investing in his namesake and going to the races in 2018, and Radcliffe said she hopes the same will happen with tennis great Rafael Nadal.

“From what I've heard he is aware of the horse–his agent is aware of the horse,” Radcliffe said. “Wouldn't it be great to get to the Derby and have Nadal, the human and horse form, together? I keep naming these horses things like that because the sport needs that kind of exposure; we need new people to come in.”

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