JC / Railbird

Bob Baffert

Four Derbies, One Triple Crown

Bob Baffert might be the one trainer a non-racing regular can name, thanks to his Triple Crown race record (Wall Street Journal — beware paywall):

[Not even D. Wayne Lukas] can match Baffert’s ruthless efficiency. Both have won the Derby four times, the most of any trainers in the last 50 years. But Lukas has done it starting 48 horses, versus Baffert’s 27. Both have won the Preakness six times, but Lukas’s total comes in 41 attempts — more than twice Baffert’s 18.

For the past 20 years, Baffert’s California-based operation has been a Triple Crown juggernaut. He won both the first two legs of the Triple Crown in two consecutive years in 1997 and 1998. Then after years of more big-time wins both in the U.S. and across the globe, his Triple Crown triumph with American Pharoah in 2015 sealed his legacy as one of the best ever.”

Related: Paying a visit to American Pharoah, “a stud and a gentleman.”

Spot the Difference

Both Bob Baffert and Linda Rice were breaking horses for their horsemen fathers while in their early teens, and both trainers have been successful at racing’s highest level. Guess which one gets a New York newspaper profile that emphasizes skill and accomplishment in its first paragraph?

Ed McNamara for Newsday:

For a trainer, there’s no substitute for the knack, and Bob Baffert had it in junior high. It’s called “the third eye,” the uncanny ability to scope out young horses and identify who will be the best runner in the bunch.

Julie Satow for the New York Times:

For an industry in which the ultimate compliment is being “a real horseman,” Linda Rice is an anomaly. Barely topping 5 feet, Ms. Rice has shoulder-length blond hair and sharp features that could make her a Ralph Lauren model. The first female horse trainer to top the standings at a major racetrack, she’s tough and she speaks at a no-nonsense clip.

All That and a Dose of Thyroxine

Arthur Hancock III:

… “therapeutics” given to horses that don’t need them are abusive.

Let’s put aside Lasix, the subject of Hancock’s phrase above, and talk about thyroxine, the synthetic thyroid hormone supplement trainer Bob Baffert admitted dosing his entire stable with during a period in which seven horses under his watch died suddenly. Trainer Steve Asmussen did the same, a practice that became public knowledge following a PETA expose. Both were cleared of doing anything illegal or improper in investigations that largely dismissed indiscriminate thyroxine use as acceptable, rule-abiding care.

“I haven’t found a barn that uses it on all their horses,” said California equine medical director Dr. Rick Arthur of the Baffert barn regimen, yet: “[The thyroxine] was legally dispensed and reported as labeled. It was within their right to do so. There is no violation of any rules.”

“The KHRC also did not uncover evidence of a rule violation with respect to thyroid hormone supplementation,” determined Kentucky re: Asmussen (PDF).

It’s a measure of how thoroughly the discussion about dispensing therapeutic drugs like carrots has been shut down following both investigations that I feel it’s in bad taste to bring the issue up right now, when Baffert is going for the Triple Crown with American Pharoah in a bit more than a week. I mean, even the Paulick Report — the publication that most aggressively chased the Baffert sudden death story — is running a piece lauding the trainer’s “horse sense” and speculating that he might be “the chosen one” to win racing’s most elusive prize. Ed Zieralski worried that “a lynching party” would pursue Baffert in 2013 if he made it to the Kentucky Derby that year (he didn’t) — he doesn’t have to be concerned about that this year, when even an inquiry about a case of colic in a Baffert Derby contender “wasn’t a question that could be asked,” in the words of Daily Racing Form correspondent Marcus Hersh.

Baffert told reporters at Churchill Downs earlier this week that dealing with the media in New York before the Belmont Stakes would be a challenge:

“To me, that’s the hardest part. You have to deal with everybody. This is easy — today with you guys. But when we get up there, everybody is going to want to push the race and all that.”

And all that. I hope it’s all that. I hope some reporter breaches etiquette.

Oaks-Derby 2015 Wrap

How’s this for a coincidence? Both the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby winning trainers omni-ed (finished first and third) in their races, Larry Jones with Lovely Maria and I’m a Chatterbox on Friday, Bob Baffert with American Pharoah and Dortmund on Saturday. And what a story it would have been had 52-year-old jockey Gary Stevens, second in the Derby with Firing Line, been Oaks-winning 56-year-old rider Kerwin Clark’s counterpart.

Sometimes the angle on both classics is upset and surprise; this year it was about being at the top of your game. Form held, in that the Kentucky Oaks winner, yet again, passed through the Fair Grounds. And in that the Kentucky Derby winner was the post-time favorite for the third year running. The Oaks win was the third for Jones since 2008, all with fillies owned by Brereton Jones. The Derby win was the fourth for Baffert, and for an owner, Ahmed Zayat, with a string of near-misses, including one in 2009 with the sire of this year’s winner. For Clark, the Oaks winner was his first Grade 1-winning mount, and the rider was the third to get his first Grade 1 win on one of Jones’ Oaks fillies. For Victor Espinoza, the Derby winner was his third, his second in two years.

“For me to get this opportunity at this time in my life when 15 years ago I had decided I was just going to stay in Louisiana and finish my career out there and just disappear quietly into the sunset,” mused Clark, “I got lucky.”

Espinoza knows the thrill. “I feel like the luckiest Mexican on Earth,” he exulted when Donna Brothers rode up for his first post-race interview, and then he praised his horse. “[American Pharoah] has been a special horse since the first time I rode him. He has a lot of talent and is an unbelievable horse.”

Talent enough to win the Triple Crown? We’ll find out over the next five weeks. Baffert said the plan is — of course — to continue on to the Preakness. His stablemate will do the same. “If Dortmund turns the tables on [American Pharoah], so be it,” the trainer told Jonathan Lintner of the Courier-Journal.

Such equanimity. He can allow himself that after getting both to Churchill Downs and winning with Pharoah. “I’m just relieved, very relieved,” Baffert said to DRF correspondent David Grening (subscription only):

“You know coming in here you got that kind of horse, and he showed it today. Pharoah probably didn’t run as well as he can, but he’s such a good horse. I’m just glad he got through here.”

American Pharoah was given a Beyer speed figure of 105 for the Kentucky Derby, the same figure he earned winning his final prep, the Arkansas Derby. TimeformUS awarded him 127 (post updated to included this link 5/7/15).

Fractions for the Kentucky Derby from the Daily Racing Form chart:

The DRF incremental times for the 2015 Kentucky Derby

Looking at the chart, it’s striking how consistent the top three finishers were through the first six furlongs. It’s a very even race. Dortmund (the leader, as predicted by the TimeformUS pace projector) took the field through a moderate first quarter in :23.24, a half in :47.34, and the first three-quarters in 1:11.29, and what had been a tight group near the front the first time past the grandstand separated into the three front-runners and the rest by the final turn. For a nice illustration of how the race unfolded, compare the official chart (PDF) points of call with the Blood-Horse pictorial race sequence.

Watching the replay, what’s most noticeable is how wide American Pharoah is turning into the stretch. Trakus has him covering 29 more feet than Firing Line and 69 more than Dortmund. Minor ground loss doesn’t seem like a bad trade for such an easy trip — the winner was unimpeded all the way around:

The final time for the Derby was 2:03.02, and American Pharoah’s margin at the wire one length over Firing Line. Espinoza had to go to work on him with hands and whip (something Larry Collmus picked up in his call, noting Pharoah was “under a ride”), and he responded. It wasn’t a brilliant victory, but a solid win, the kind that reveals a horse’s mettle. Pharoah is tough.

For that matter, so is Firing Line, who I unfairly and wrongly (so wrongly) discounted when handicapping. The Sunland Derby winner had finished second to Dortmund in their two earlier meetings, and the pair went to the front together in the Kentucky Derby, keeping both busy. “I not only have to turn the tables on Dortmund with Firing Line, but I’ve got to figure out a way to beat American Pharaoh,” Stevens said during a Reddit AMA two weeks ago, talking about his Derby strategy. “I’ve already figured out a way to beat Dortmund! For my plan to work, I’ve got to be in the right place at the right time.” Credit the rider with pulling off at least half his plan — Firing Line headed Dortmund turning into the final quarter and finished two lengths ahead of the previously undefeated colt. If Firing Line did anything wrong, it was that he didn’t switch leads in the stretch (via @randy_moss_TV).

No excuse for Dortmund — he just didn’t have that last furlong in him. Frosted ranged up late and almost got him for show. “He’s a really good horse and he ran like it today,” said jockey Martin Garcia after the Derby. “He always comes to run; that’s the kind of horse he is. He got beat today by really good horses. That can happen.” The question going forward is, did he reveal a distance limitation, or — with the experience — will he be able to handle 10 furlongs in races such as the Travers or Breeders’ Cup Classic?

Back to the Kentucky Oaks: Lovely Maria earned a Beyer speed figure of 94; TimeformUS gave her 105. She drew away for a 2 3/4 length win (PDF):

Her victory is lovely, for so many reasons.

Odds and ends: American Pharoah is a handsome animalthat was quite a Derby winner’s circle celebration … “justice of sorts in Pharoah’s win.”

Shocking

Ray Paulick continues digging into the sudden deaths of 36 California racehorses from July 1, 2011 to March 31, 2013, and finds that:

… one trainer with 2.5% of the horses and 1.5% of the total starts has had 19.4% of the sudden deaths over a 21-month period.

That trainer has hired a public relations and crisis management firm to handle the attention his startling numbers have aroused. They’ve been tweeting.

6/21/13 Addendum: The CHRB has issued a statement on the ongoing investigation into the sudden deaths (PDF). “The pathology and toxicology work has been completed … with no indication of foul play. This aspect of the review is believed to have been as thorough of an examination as has ever been done anywhere in the world with such cases.”

Bigger than California

John Pricci gets to the point:

It may be impolitic to judge without having all the facts but it would be irresponsible and inappropriate not to speculate based on circumstances. From where we sit, these cardiac related deaths are a possible indictment of not only individuals but the whole way the game is administered. It’s a problem that stretches far beyond the California state line.

More on the sudden death issue collected here.

East Coast Bias

It’s that time of year again, when handicappers toss aside the disappointments of last spring and savor the pleasure of a fresh start on the Derby trail, when the horse who could win the Triple Crown is all unblemished potential. Lists appear like croci — every 3-year-old could be the one.

I’ll be adding to the list-mania, beginning next week, when the Paulick Derby Index returns for its third season, and one question preoccupies me as I consider who’s a top 10 Kentucky Derby contender — what to do with California sophomores such as Tapizar, wire-to-wire winner of the Sham Stakes? The hard new surface lauded as being similar to Churchill Downs’ deep dirt in the first days of training last December is turning out dazzling times that are anything but Churchill-like. Sand added to the track last week slowed things down a little, but front-runners retained their edge, and on Thursday, a $10,000 claimer named Self Insured ran a mile in 1:34. That’s quick.

It all makes me a bit nostalgic for the synthetic surface. The new surface is so kind to speed, it makes me doubtful it’s doing much for stamina.

Related: The new surface also continues to be kind to trainer Bob Baffert.

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