By Bill Finley
Saturday's GIII Las Virgenes S. at Santa Anita was a big test for the Bob Baffert-trained filly and 'TDN Rising Star' Kinza (Carpe Diem). She was coming off a scintillating maiden win in which she got a 96 Beyer, but was facing a much stronger challenge in the one-mile stakes. Not only did she have to prove she could go two turns, but she was facing another potential star in the undefeated Kopion (Omaha Beach), the winner of the GIII Santa Ynez S.
On paper, this was a match race. But Kinza turned it into a one-horse show. She only won by two lengths, but at no point did it look like Kopion could pass the front-running Baffert filly. Kinza got a 93 Beyer to cement her status as the fastest 3-year-old filly in training.
Under normal circumstances, this performance would have stamped Kinza as the clear early favorite for the GI Kentucky Oaks. But there is nothing normal about this year's Oaks or, for that matter, the GI Kentucky Derby.
Kinza, a New York-bred, won't be allowed to run in the Oaks because Baffert was banned by Churchill Downs shortly after Medina Spirit (Protonico) tested positive for betamethasone after crossing the wire first in the 2021 Derby. The same goes for his colts. A week earlier, the Baffert-trained Nysos (Nyquist) looked like Triple Crown-winning material when crushing his opposition in the GIII Robert B. Lewis S. Baffert also has 'TDN Rising Star' Muth (Good Magic), the winner of the GII San Vicente S. and runner-up in last year's GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Nysos and Muth are one-two in the NTRA's 3-Year-Old poll. He also has 'TDN Rising Star' Maymum (Frosted), an impressive maiden winner who was entered in Sunday's sixth race at Santa Anita.
In past years, most of Baffert's owners turned their horses over to other trainers, most notably Tim Yakteen, which made them eligible to run at Churchill. But this year, in a surprising display of loyalty, not one Baffert owner took a horse away from him. They put their loyalty to Baffert over their dreams of winning the Kentucky Derby.
This wasn't supposed to happen. Baffert's Churchill ban was originally for two years, which meant he was supposed to be free and clear to run horses there this year. But on July 3, 2023, out of the middle of nowhere, the company announced that it was extending Baffert's ban at least through the end of 2024. It was a shocking development and it was unfair. Baffert's original penalties, which also included a 90-day suspension from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and a one-year ban from NYRA, were extremely harsh as it was considering the worst thing Baffert had done was to have positives that stemmed from overages of medications that in no way could be considered performance-enhancing. Since being handed the various suspensions and bans, Baffert has done nothing wrong. He has not had any more positives. He even went so far as to announce on Jan. 22 that he and Medina Spirit's owner Amr Zedan had dropped all legal actions regarding the Derby disqualification. It was an obvious peace offering, but one that was quickly and decisively dismissed by Churchill, which announced that the dropping of the lawsuits changed nothing. Baffert was still banned for, at the very least, all of 2024.
This time, Churchill had gone too far. There's no doubt that their battle with Baffert had turned personal and when that happens, fairness and reason get tossed out the window. Punishing the trainer remained the priority.
But now the script has flipped. That no Baffert horses, no Kinza, no Nysos, no Muth, no Maymum, will appear in Derby week stakes at Churchill will hurt Churchill a lot more than it will hurt Baffert. These will be races that will require asterisks because they did not include some of the best 3-year-old talent in the country.
One theory was that the ban was extended because Churchill didn't want Baffert's return to overshadow the festivities being planned to celebrate the 150th running of the race. It looks like Churchill never imagined that the Baffert owners would effectively boycott the Derby. But that's exactly what has happened. And one of the results of that is the very situation Churchill had hoped to avoid is now going to happen. The major storyline all week will not be the 150th renewal of the race or whoever emerges as the main contenders. It will be all about the missing stars from the Baffert barn, the impact that will have on the race and how it has weakened this Kentucky Derby and this Kentucky Oaks.
There's nothing anyone can do about it now. It's too late for Churchill to reconsider, not that they ever had any intention of doing so. The shot has been fired and it hit squarely in the corporate foot of Churchill Downs Inc. This was all so unnecessary. All they had to do was let Baffert back after the two-year ban ended. Instead, they kept moving the goal posts and double downed on what was a dubious punishment in the first place. This Derby and this Oaks will not be what they should be and Churchill has no one to blame but itself.
Oh, well. At least it should be a good GI Preakness S.
John Pimental Doesn't Get a Break
HISA/HIWU resolved its case against small-time trainer John Pimental last week. He has been handed a 15-month suspension and a fine of $10,000 for possession of banned thyroid medication, Thyro-L. Pimental also has an outstanding case against him for a methamphetamine positive. So he may be facing still more serious penalties.
You can read more about his story and his case by clicking here.
Yes, the rules are the rules and Pimental was not careful and did not properly dispose of the thyroid medication, even though he had a prescription to administer it to a stable pony. As for the methamphetamine positive, it almost has to be the result of human contamination. The bottom line is that the punishment does not come anywhere close to fitting the crime. John Pimental is not a cheat or a horse doper. At the very worst, he's guilty of not being careful when it came to the Thyro-L.
Yes, HISA/HIWU is a work in progress and since HIWU got off and running last May, they have altered some of their policies and have been less draconian when it comes to catching and penalizing people for drug violations.
But they haven't come far enough and the Pimental case is a prime example. By no means did he do anything to warrant a 15-month suspension and a $10,000 fine.
HISA needs to hire a Vice President of Common Sense, someone who understands racing, understands what is cheating and what is not, and can put the brakes on the organization when they go after people like John Pimental.
A Loaded Risen Star
With the exception of Mandaloun (Into Mischief), who was awarded the win in the Kentucky Derby after Medina Spirit was disqualified, the GII Risen Star S. at the Fair Grounds has never produced a Kentucky Derby winner. That could easily change this year as the 2024 edition is loaded with talent. Trained by Chad Brown, Sierra Leone (Gun Runner) is a $2.3 million Fasig-Tipton Saratoga purchase and will be favored. He was last seen closing from last to just miss by a nose in the GII Remsen S. He is clearly Brown's best chance yet to add a Derby win on to his record.
He'll have to come into New Orleans ready to run as the competition includes Hall of Fame (Gun Runner), also bought at Saratoga as a yearling for $1.4 million, who is coming off an impressive maiden win for Steve Asmussen. Then there's GII Kentucky Jockey Club winner Honor Marie (Honor Code); Smarty Jones winner Catching Freedom (Constitution) and GIII Lecomte S. Winner Track Phantom (Quality Road).