Welcome to the latest installment of the dramatic series I like to call “As the Baffert Turns (On A Spit).”
In our last episode, you’ll recall, our protagonist, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, escaped a perilous summer of not being allowed to enter horses at Saratoga when a federal judge overturned his suspension by the New York Racing Association over Medina Springs’ positive drug test after the Kentucky Derby.
The plot — as plots are wont to do — has thickened, with Baffert once more tied to the figurative train tracks by his nemeses, Churchill Downs Inc. and the New York Racing Association.
NYRA on Friday informed the four-time Eclipse Award-winning conditioner that it had scheduled a hearing on Sept. 27 to determine whether he has engaged in “conduct that is detrimental to the best interests of the sport of thoroughbred racing or potentially injurious to the health or safety of horses or riders.” If it determines he has, a new suspension or ban is expected.
The same day, Churchill Downs announced a new policy clearly written with him in mind: No horse trained by an individual suspended by the racetrack will be awarded points in the 2021-22 “Road to the Kentucky Derby” program.
Since that is the only way a horse can qualify for the 148th running of the Derby in May, the racetrack was essentially telling Baffert clients with talented 2-year-olds that they will not get a chance to run for the roses if they stand by their man.
While the racetrack operators play hardball, the Breeders’ Cup has not yet made a pronouncement on whether entries by Baffert will be accepted for that marquee two-day event Nov. 5-6 at Del Mar. Baffert will be eligible to race under current Breeders’ Cup rules unless its Board of Directors intervenes to block his participation.
Meanwhile, the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to render a verdict on Medina Spirit’s positive test for the steroid betamethasone, a therapeutic drug that must clear a horse’s system by race day under the state’s racing rules.
The reason for the delay: Both parties to a lawsuit filed by Baffert are still awaiting the results of testing on the colt’s urine, a defense strategy aimed at showing the positive test was the result of accidental contamination from a topical cream rather than an attempt to cheat.
There’s more to unpack here, but for now, we leave Baffert in a perilous position. As they used to say on the radio, stay tuned.
Belmont stakes, Woodbine Mile top action
Belmont Park is back in action, with a trio of Saturday stakes topped by the $1 million Jockey Club Derby and the $700,000 Jockey Club Oaks Invitational.
In the former, Grade 1-winner Bolshoi Ballet and Group 2-victor Yibir head a field of eight sophomores in the 12-furlong turf test, a “Win and You’re In” race for the $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf.
The Oaks, run at 1⅜ miles over the inner turf course, has an international flavor, with Godolphin’s Creative Flair and Flaxman Stable’s Group 3 winner Harajuku crossing the pond to take on five American-based contenders.
Woodbine also has a nice array of stakes on its Saturday menu, capped by the $1 million Woodbine Mile, a “Win and You’re In” stepping stone to the Breeders’ Cup Mile .
The Mile looks like a solid betting race, with March to the Arch, 8-1 on the morning line, my top pick. He’ll have to conquer Set Piece (5-2) and Raging Bull (2-1) to get the job done.
Ellis Starr’s Woodbine Mile analysis
Very small lines in the sand separate a number of these horses in terms of their probability for success in this year’s Ricoh Woodbine Mile, but I’ll start with Ride a Comet as the one I think can get the job done. A winner of five races from 10 career turf starts, Ride a Comet is a perfect two-for-two when running on the Woodbine grass. He’s also a perfect two-for-two on the Woodbine main track, which is the all-weather Tapeta surface. The most recent of his wins at Woodbine came in the Kennedy Road Stakes in November, which was his second start following 13 months off and the second of three wins in a row. The win that followed was the best effort of his career, when victorious in the Tropical Turf Stakes in January at the mile trip of the Woodbine Mile. That effort earned a career-best 117 Equibase Speed Figure which is on par with the 117 figure earned by 2020 Woodbine Mile winner Starship Jubilee and the 116 figure earned by 2019 winner El Tormenta. Earlier this year, Ride a Comet finished second behind Raging Bull (FR) in the Maker’s Mark Mile in a very strong field of nine and after going seven paths wide into the stretch. Most recently, Ride a Comet finished third in the Wise Dan Stakes, won by Set Piece (GB), who returned to finish strongly for second in the Fourstardave Handicap last month at Saratoga. Better still, the Wise Dan turned out to be a very productive “KEY” race from which the runner-up finished second in the Mint Million Stakes last month, the fourth-place finisher won the Baltimore/Washington International, the fifth- and sixth-place finishers returned to run second in stakes and the eighth-place horse came back to win a stakes race on the grass. As such, all signs point to Ride a Comet improving markedly out of the Wise Dan and if he repeats his Tropical Turf Stakes effort he can post the upset win in this year’s Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
Set Piece has run five “A” races in a row consisting of three winning efforts and two runner-up finishes. The best of those in terms of finish came when winning the Wise Dan in June, but the best in terms of how fast he ran was when earning a 116 figure winning the Opening Verse Stakes in April at this one mile turf trip, the first of three straight stakes wins before a big second place effort rallying from last of eight in the Fourstardave Handicap last month behind the incomparable mare Got Stormy, who finished second (beaten just a half-length) in the 2019 Woodbine Mile. One key element that suggests Set Piece, as well as Ride a Comet, can repeat their best recent efforts in this race is the fact that both have run their last five races without Lasix, which they will not be using in this event, whereas four of the other top contenders will be racing without Lasix after running with it in their recent efforts in similar races. Set Piece has won nine of 17 races in his career, including four of five on turf, and gets the services of Joel Rosario, who comes off a strong performance at the tough Kentucky Downs meeting, winning seven of 30 starts and in many of those races showing tremendous riding skills skimming the rail to victory.
Space Traveller (GB) is an “X Factor” and likely to be a long shot in this race. He’s won five of 20 races in his career, all on turf, including two at this mile trip. His biggest win came in the Group 2 Boomerang Solonaway Stakes two years ago this week, earning a 111 figure in the process at this distance and on a left handed course like the one at Woodbine. Since then, Space Traveller has won only one of seven, but two of those were notable. The first of the two camein June when winning the Sky Bet Ganton Stakes in Great Britain after trailing early and at one mile on a left handed course. The second came just last month when rallying from last of eight to get fourth in the Mr. D. Stakes at a mile and one-quarter, which he had never run previously. I believe that race was a prep for the Woodbine Mile and the cut back in distance will serve Space Traveller (GB) very well by providing him with a lot of late energy at this shorter trip. Perhaps most notable was the fact in the Mr. D., Space Traveller (GB) was pinched back at the start and did not appreciate that so was rank (upset) for the first part of the race. After relaxing, when asked to run he had no room then when finding room late and allowed to stretch his legs, Space Traveller (GB) did just that but it was too late. Jockey Daniel Tudhope comes back from Europe to ride the horse once again and rode him to four of his five career wins, suggesting Space Traveller (GB) can run a lot better than his high odds suggest he will.
Olympic Runner and Raging Bull (FR) also deserve mention. Olympic Runner has won just one of seven career starts on the Woodbine turf course but his most recent was his best yet as it came in the very similar King Edward Stakes last month, earning a 111 figure in the process. Olympic Runner missed by a neck in the Canadian Turf Stakes in February with a 113 figure and without Lasix but his two most recent efforts, including a neck defeat behind Avie’s Flatter in the Connaught Cup Stakes, were with Lasix. Raging Bull likely would have finished much better than fourth in the 2019 Woodbine Mile if not for significant traffic trouble. He was moved up to third via disqualification of the original third place finisher and earned a 114 figure. This year Raging Bull won the similar Maker’s Mark Mile in April before missing by a head in the Poker Stakes then a more lackluster effort when sixth as the even money favorite in the Fourstardave. With world-class jockey Frankie Dettori riding, Raging Bull might have a say in the outcome of this year’s Ricoh Woodbine Mile.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Avie’s Flatter (113); Change of Control (102); Duke of Hazzard (FR) (114); March to the Arch (115); and Town Cruise (109).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.