By Bill Finley
Bob Baffert has certainly taken his lumps ever since it was discovered that Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for a banned substance in the 2021 GI Kentucky Derby. He was hit with a 90-day suspension from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission, the New York Racing Association banned him for a year and Churchill Downs banned him for two years. Though Baffert is still fighting the Churchill ban, in all likelihood, he will not be allowed to start a horse in this year's Derby, which would be the second straight year he was prevented from running a horse in the race.
Then, it was reported last week, that horses currently trained by Baffert must be sent to another trainer by Feb. 28. If not, they will not be eligible for qualifying points for the Derby. Last year, he didn't have to turn over his Derby hopefuls to another stable until just prior to the last round of Derby preps, races like the GI Santa Anita Derby and the GI Arkansas Derby.
With just about any other trainer, these penalties could have been a major setback, with owners sending their horses to new barns. But Baffert is not any other trainer. When it comes to winning Triple Crown races he is arguably the best there has ever been and owners know that teaming up with him improves their chances of winning the sport's most coveted races, even if he might not be the trainer of their horses when it comes Derby time. No one walked away.
So it's no surprise that Baffert has not suffered the “irreparable harm” that his lawyers kept arguing would be the case when contesting the suspensions. But no one could have foreseen what was to come, that Baffert would emerge from this with more firepower than he has ever had.
That was on full display last weekend. Baffert won the GIII Southwest S. at Oaklawn with Arabian Knight (Uncle Mo). The next day he captured the GII San Vicente S. with Havnameltdown (Uncaptured), a race in which he sent out three of the four starters. But nothing shined a light on Baffert's dominance quite like the list of nominees for the GIII Robert B. Lewis S., which was released Saturday. Sixteen horses were nominated and 14 are trained by Baffert. He very well could be the only trainer to have a horse in next Saturday's race.
The list of owners of the horses nominated for the Lewis is a stellar group, individuals and partnerships who have remained fiercely loyal to Baffert. You have Zedan Racing Stables, Michael Lund Petersen, the Pegram, Watson, Weitman partnership and the SF Racing, Starlight Racing, Madaket Stables partnership.
The list of Lewis nominees does not include Cave Rock (Arrogate). The GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up who was Baffert's best 2-year-old last year, Cave Rock, as of Sunday, had not had a published workout in 2023, not a good sign with the Derby just 95 days away.
Baffert's weekend also included a win in the GIII Las Virgenes S. for 3-year-old fillies with Faiza (Girvin) and a second-place finish with Defunded (Dialed In) in the GI Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
None of which means that Baffert, or whomever is brought in prior to the Derby, has to win the race, but they will likely head to Churchill with a very strong hand, one led by Arabian Knight. After an electric win in his debut Nov. 5 at Keeneland, he had no problem with the next test, two turns and stakes competition in the Southwest. While GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Forte (Violence) has accomplished more than Arabian Knight, the Baffert runner, who cost $2.3 million at the OBS April sale, has been so impressive that he looks like the leader of the division and he tops the TDN's Derby Top 12. Look for him to take the Oaklawn route to the Derby and follow in the footsteps of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (Pioneerof the Nile), who won the GII Rebel S. and the Arkansas Derby on his way to Louisville.
The most starters Baffert has ever had in the Derby is three, which he has done four times. Last year, Tim Yakteen, subbing for Baffert, had two. Could Baffert, or whomever is brought in to deputize, have six or seven starters in this year's race? It seems entirely possible. And after the Derby has been run, the last of the suspensions or bans that Baffert has been hit with, will be over. He can move on.
With the two-year anniversary of Medina Spirit having tested positive in the Derby coming up, the Hall of Fame trainer has proved his resiliency and his major owners have all stood by him. It's no doubt been a trying two years for Baffert, but it could have been a lot worse. He's stronger than ever.
Numbers Plummet at Sam Houston
For those of you who missed it, Pauline's Pearl (Tapit) won Saturday's GIII Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston and Scarlet Fusion (Curlin) captured the GIII John Connally Turf Cup. Not that hardly anybody was able to watch or wager on those races.
You have to feel bad for Sam Houston management, which has done a good job over the years promoting what it calls the Houston Racing Festival. The event has given the track some needed exposure over the years and brought in some good horses. Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute) won the Ladies Classic in 2019 and Letruska (Super Saver) captured the race in 201.
But this year, thanks to a hissy fit from the Texas Racing Commission, the Saturday card at Sam Houston was all but invisible. The Texas racing regulators pulled the plug on the simulcasting of all races in the state after declaring that the advent of the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act meant it was illegal to send the races out of state. So, unless you were present in Texas Saturday, you could neither watch nor bet on the Sam Houston races. With no betting being taken on the races, none of the major ADWs showed the Sam Houston races.
The results were predictable. The handle on the day was $488,385. Last year, when the races were run on a Sunday, the handle was $5,698,052. That's a decline of 91.4%.
The Texas tracks get some of their purse money from a fund that comes from sales taxes on horse feed, tack and other horse-related products and services. But trying to maintain purses when the handle is next to nothing is not feasible. Meanwhile, the Texas Racing Commission continues to cut off its nose to spite its face, putting the future of racing in the state in jeopardy.
At Pegasus World Cup, Business is Booming
1/ST Racing has put a lot of its resources behind turning a day at the races into an event. The best example is Pegasus World Cup Day. By combining a stellar day of racing, a $3-million race and a number of on-track entertainment options, 1/ST has turned the day into a horse racing party.
That might not appeal to everyone as there are surely a lot of curmudgeonly horseplayers who could do without having to pay a good dollar to attend and have no interest in listening to musical acts whose audience are Gen Z-ers. But it is working. They handled $43,886,543 Saturday at Gulfstream. Up until 2016, the race was not the Pegasus but the GI Donn H. and the likes of Kygo, OneRepublic and Joe Jonas were nowhere to be found. In the last year of the Donn, the handle was $19,954,971. It has more than doubled since.