After spending much of the spring keeping tight-lipped about future starts for his army of 3-year-olds, trainer Bob Baffert finally unveiled the plans he intends to take to prepare his stable for the Kentucky Derby (G1) in September.

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The first domino will fall this Saturday when Baffert’s multiple graded stakes winner Thousand Words enters the gate for the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes, a 1 1/8-mile event at Oaklawn Park. Though the Oaklawn Stakes does not offer any Kentucky Derby Trail points, it is the only big event currently on the racing calendar restricted to 3-year-olds due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The $750,000 Arkansas Derby (G1), offering a total of 170 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the top four finishers (100-40-20-10), was originally scheduled for this Saturday but swapped calendar dates with the Oaklawn Stakes after the Kentucky Derby was postponed to September 5. The Arkansas Derby will now fill the Kentucky Derby’s vacant slot on May 2, which is when the Oaklawn Stakes was originally scheduled.

“This business right now, this life that we live in, it’s hour-by-hour, day-by-day,” Baffert recently told Oaklawn Park’s media department. “It’s nice that you guys are still open.”

Like most horsemen and women across the country, Baffert is no stranger to calling last-minute audibles so that his horses can compete. Thousand Words was originally slated to appear in the Santa Anita Derby (G1) on April 4, but Santa Anita Park temporarily ceased racing beginning March 27.

The $1 million son of Pioneerof the Nile will make his first start away from Southern California on Saturday after racing four times (with three wins) between Santa Anita Park and Los Alamitos. After breaking his maiden, Thousand Words won the Los Alamitos Futurity (G2) and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3) before most recently finishing fourth in the San Felipe Stakes (G2).

“I think he’s a good horse and he got beat by a good horse,” Baffert said. “He didn’t show up that day.”

Thousand Words after winning the Robert B. Lewis (Credit: Ernie Belmonte)

The good horse who beat him is his stablemate Authentic, an undefeated son of Into Mischief who broke his maiden at Del Mar last November before winning the Sham Stakes (G3) and the San Felipe, both at Santa Anita Park. While Baffert is moving full steam ahead with most of his pupils, he’s taking a different approach with Authentic, whose most recent workout was a 6-furlong move in 1:12.40 on March 29.

Like Thousand Words, Authentic was expected to return in the Santa Anita Derby.

“Authentic, he’s the only one I’ve backed off of,” Baffert said, indicating that he would reduce the colt to only walking under tack for the time being.

Authentic after winning the San Felipe (Credit: Ernie Belmonte)

The Hall of Fame trainer is pushing full steam ahead with two other undefeated prospects, Nadal and Charlatan, both of whom are aiming for the Arkansas Derby gate. Coincidentally, both colts did not start their careers until 2020. What is often seen as a negative in any other year could prove insignificant with the Kentucky Derby delayed by four months.

Nadal has perhaps proven himself more than anyone else in the barn. The son of Blame followed a January debut by winning the 7-furlong San Vicente Stakes (G2) just three weeks later, then shipped to Oaklawn Park and took the 1 1/16-mile Rebel Stakes (G2) in his two-turn debut.

Nadal after winning the San Vicente (Credit: Ernie Belmonte)

Charlatan’s intriuge as a Kentucky Derby prospect is magnified by the mystery surrounding him. Unheralded as the 6/5 second choice when debuting on February 16 (a rarity from a barn known for having first-time starters ready to fire), Charlatan won that 6-furlong event by 5 3/4 lengths, then returned on March 14 and conquered allowance foes in a two-turn mile event. Following that 10 1/4-length romp, Baffert indicated that Charlatan’s next appearance would be in a Kentucky Derby points race.

Some pundits have voiced concerns that Charlatan’s pedigree will limit his ability to go longer, as his sire, Speightstown, is widely regarded as one of the nation’s best one-turn sires. It is worth noting, however, that Charlatan’s dam side gives him an endurance boost. Authenticity won or placed in all seven of her graded stakes starts (each of which was two turns), including a third in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1).

“If we can get some races into Nadal and Charlatan, then after that, we can sort of just go on cruise control for a little bit,” Baffert said. “We’ll have those in (the Arkansas Derby), if all goes well. We’re pointing those two for it.”

Charlatan after his allowance win (Credit: Ernie Belmonte)

Baffert is no stranger to shipping to Oaklawn Park and winning major Kentucky Derby preps. Along with winning the Rebel a record seven times (all since 2010), he has twice taken the Arkansas Derby – with Bodemeister in 2012 and American Pharoah in 2015.

The latter famously blossomed into racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.