This is challenging. Bob Baffert is responsible for some of the most valuable horses in the world, entrusted with nurturing their abilities and developing their talents so they reach not only their potential but also, if possible, the Kentucky Derby. This year, he also has to direct traffic. Baffert trains three horses included here in the Top 20, as well as two more among the also-eligibles and at least two more (Azul Coast and High Velocity) that are just outside the reach of this list.
And here’s his problem — a problem, granted, any trainer would love to have, but a problem nonetheless, and one he deserves, given his unprecedented Triple Crown success: Among the horses in the Baffert Brigade, only Authentic has sufficient qualifying points to guarantee himself a place in the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby; the other six or so have to punch their ticket to Churchill Downs by running well in the remaining stakes that offer points. And it would enhance their chances of earning points if they could avoid each other.
That’s basically why Eight Rings isn’t at Oaklawn Park for the Rebel. Nadal has been aimed at the Rebel ever since he won the San Vicente, and then Eight Rings forced himself into the picture with his outstanding workouts. Baffert said he had planned to send the Empire Maker colt to Hot Springs, Ark., when there was a possibility the Rebel would be split into two divisions. But when that possibility faded so, too, did Eight Rings’ Rebel plans.
“He’s nominated to everything,” Baffert said about Eight Rings. In other words, he could turn up in Florida, New York, New Mexico, Kentucky or just about anywhere. The same is true for the sensational maiden winner Charlatan. With five Kentucky Derby victories, Baffert is one shy of Ben Jones’ record, and he’s charging at this year’s roseate run with one of the strongest groups of 3-year-olds seen in recent years. But how many of them will get into the gate on May 2? Baffert’s brilliance as a trainer includes an uncanny improvisational talent which, in turn, depends on a special rapport. These young horses will “tell” him when they’re ready, and then he’ll put them on a plane or a van for whatever’s next in the queue.
He plans carefully and meticulously, but he’ll adjust or scrap a plan in about the time it takes Authentic to run a sixteenth of a mile. At this point, Nadal is at Oaklawn Park and will probably be favored in the Rebel, where he drew an inside post position and could very well shoot to an early lead. “Speed is his weapon,” Baffert said.
Nadal has looked sensational in his only two starts, but remains a mystery since he never has raced around two turns and looks like a sprinter. But he has the pedigree of a horse that’s going to excel around two turns, and he has trained as if stretching out won’t be a problem.
Baffert said he was both surprised and disappointed by the performance of Thousand Words in Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. He faded to fourth after racing prominently for about three-quarters.
“When he left there (the gate) he was real aggressive early,” Baffert said, “and then he just leveled off…. He’s a much better horse than that.” Thousand Words won’t progress to the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert said, but will instead travel. Nor will he employ the close-to-the-pace aggressive style again.
The only other certainty for the Baffert Brigade is that Authentic will be aimed at the Santa Anita Derby on April 4. In the San Felipe, making only the third start of his career, Authentic shot to the lead, controlled the pace and was never seriously threatened.
“He did it effortlessly,” Baffert said about Authentic’s performance, pointing out that the colt’s athleticism —“He’s real light on his feet” —could enable him to stretch out to longer distances. “He’s the real deal.”
The traffic is real, too, for the Baffert Brigade.
The Kentucky Derby will be run May 2 at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., over the classic distance of 1 1/4 miles. Based on points accumulated in designated stakes (including races in Japan and Europe), the field will be limited to 20 starters, with four also-eligibles.
No. Horse (Trainer) Starts-Wins-Seconds-Thirds Earnings Sire
1. Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) 4-3-0-1 $498,900 Constitution
Comment: As good as King Guillermo and Authentic looked, they didn’t quite reach the standard of Tiz the Law. His Holy Bull victory remains the best performance — in this country anyway — by any horse of this generation. So, again, he clearly leads the parade. And getting some Derby qualifying points early has given the “legal” team flexibility. Sunday, over a dull Palm Meadows surface, he worked a bullet five-eighths in 1:01.90. He’s aimed at the Florida Derby on March 28, where a solid effort will set him up beautifully for the Kentucky Derby.
2. Nadal (Bob Baffert) 2-2-0-0 $153,000 Blame
Comment: For the second consecutive week, Nadal turned in a sparkling workout as part of his preparation for Saturday’s $1 million Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, which could be the most telling Derby prep to date. It’s not a place for an inexperienced horse, unless, of course, that horse is special. And Nadal looks special. What he lacks in experience, he compensates for with abundant talent. Last week he worked seven-eighths of a mile in 1:25.20; on Sunday he worked a bullet five-eighths of a mile in :59.60, pulling clear from Dr. Dorr, a 7-year-old stakes winner, to hit the wire four lengths in front before galloping out strongly. (Dr. Dorr was credited with 1:00.60.) But can he handle the sort of accomplished company he’s about to face, and can he extend his speed around two turns? “He’s a big, strong horse, he’s very fast, and the way he’s working, ..” Bob Baffert said, but didn’t complete the sentence, as if catching himself just in time, just before saying something that might sound like a prediction. Superstition scorns predictions. “He’s bred for it (two turns), but until they do it, you don’t know.” Saturday night, much more will be known about Nadal.
3. Authentic (Bob Baffert) 3-3-0-0 $331,200 Into Mischief
Comment: “He’s the real deal,” Bob Baffert said about the colt he sent out to a convincing victory in Saturday’s San Felipe Stakes, a performance that puts him atop the leaderboard with 60 points. He won the San Felipe by more than two lengths over Honor A.P., but, as Baffert pointed out, Authentic actually won rather easily. The race wasn’t as close as the margin of victory. After a slight bobble, he took control, cruised on the lead, pricking his ears, and with some left-handed encouragement drew clear before being taken in hand approaching the wire. Still, some questions remain. He’s a late foal (May 5) with a speedy pedigree, and Saturday, after setting a lively pace, he ran the fourth quarter-mile in a rather modest 25.57 seconds; so will he be capable of succeeding at 1 1/4 miles in May? He has won his three races by an average of nearly four lengths and has secured each of his victories by at least mid-stretch; so how will he respond to a serious challenge that goes down to the wire? How much faster would he have run that fourth quarter if seriously challenged? He’s still two months away from turning 3 by the calendar and he has raced only three times. It’s reasonable to assume that there’s plenty of development and improvement within him; so just how good might this guy become? He’ll make some suggestions, maybe provide some answers, on April 4 in the Santa Anita Derby.
4. Sole Volante (Patrick Biancone) 5-3-1-1 $266,310 Karakontie
Comment: On a day when no winner rallied from more than two lengths back after the opening half-mile on the main track, Sole Volante rallied behind an adagio pace from next-to-last to finish second in Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby, running the fourth quarter-mile in an admirable 23.80 seconds. He had a nearly perfect trip, saving ground and waiting in traffic for just an instant, and ran well, but he couldn’t overcome the circumstances, which favored speed, nor could he outrun King Guillermo. But Sole Volante is well on his way to Kentucky: With his win in the Sam F. Davis Stakes and Saturday’s runner-up effort, he has 30 qualifying points, which might suffice. Since Churchill Downs began its designated-races point system, the minimum number of points needed to qualify for the Derby has ranged from 10 to 40, with 27 as an average. His connections have indicated Sole Volante will make his next start in either the Kentucky Derby or the Wood Memorial. From here, the Wood Memorial makes more sense.
5. Silver Prospector (Steve Asmussen) 8-3-0-2 $713,051 Declaration of War
Comment: As is often the pattern for horses trained by Steve Asmussen, Silver Prospector worked an easy half-mile Sunday (49.80 seconds at Oaklawn Park) in preparation for Saturday’s Rebel Stakes. The Rebel pace should be lively and contentious, and Silver Prospector could enjoy a favorable trip cruising a few lengths behind the early leaders. In winning the Southwest Stakes, he took a meaningful step forward. And “he has done very well since the Southwest,” Asmussen said. Silver Prospector will probably duplicate that performance in the Rebel. Will that put him in the winner’s circle? Perhaps. It will also prepare him to step forward to the Arkansas Derby on April 11 and proceed down the road to Kentucky.
6. Ete Indien (Patrick Biancone) 5-3-1-0 $333,156 Summer Front
Comment: Sunday, in his first workout since winning the Fountain of Youth, he worked an easy half-mile in 50.85 seconds on the turf at Palm Meadows. He has trained on the turf in the past; so there’s nothing unusual about that. All victories are impressive in one way or another, but his Fountain of Youth was especially so because he displayed push-button ability. That was even more impressive than the margin of victory, which was 8 1/2 lengths. His combination of intelligence, speed and tractability just might enable him to become one of the leading Derby contenders and outrun his pedigree. His sire was essentially a miler, with five of his eight wins coming at one mile on the turf; he won twice at 1 1/16 miles on the grass, but never beyond that. Ete Indien’s dam, East India, raced only twice, on grass both times, without winning. With 54 points, he’s second on the leaderboard; so he has a reservation in the Derby starting gate. He’s likely to return in the Florida Derby on March 28.
7. Independence Hall (Michael Trombetta) 4-3-1-0 $250,000 Constitution
Comment: He’s something of a forgotten horse. Highly regarded when the year began, he disappointed in the Sam F. Davis, losing for the first time in his career. But based on his juvenile performances and, to a lesser extent, on that losing effort, he deserves to be regarded as one of the most talented colts in this group. On Saturday, he worked seven-eighths of a mile in a solid 1:28. It was his third workout since the loss. He has 14 qualifying points for the Derby, and so his status, as with many of these, is precarious, his getting into the Derby probably depending on his performance in the Florida Derby.
8. Basin (Steve Asmussen) 3-2-1-0 $261,000 Liam’s Map
Comment: Basin will make his seasonal debut Saturday in the Rebel at Oaklawn Park. It is, as they say, much anticipated. He has had 10 workouts since the first of the year, and a couple of them have turned heads. He’s training, in the words of his trainer, “like a Grade 1 winner,” which, of course, he is, having won last year’s Hopeful at Saratoga. He has no points, and so his progress on the road to Kentucky depends entirely on his upcoming races. Here’s a measure for how highly regarded he is: He’ll be ridden by Javier Castellano in the Rebel.
9. King Guillermo (Juan Carlos Avila) 4-2-0-1 Uncle Mo
Comment: He took advantage of a quick, speed-favoring surface to win the Tampa Bay Derby and 50 qualifying points, and so he has reserved his place in the starting gate. (With a payment of $6,000 Tuesday, he became a late nominee to the Triple Crown.) It’s hard to evaluate him and say just how good he might be. Owned by Victor Martinez, a five-time MLB all-star, and named for his late father, King Guillermo enjoyed the soft pace and a near-perfect trip. But he finished well, running the fourth quarter-mile in 24.30 seconds, and galloped out strongly, leaving a positive impression. His connections already have indicated King Guillermo will train up to the Derby, meaning the roseate run will be his first start in eight weeks. He obviously runs well fresh — the Tampa Bay Derby was his first start of the year. But the Kentucky Derby sneers at freshness: Over the last 20 years, eight winners made their last pre-Derby start three weeks earlier, five made their last pre-Derby start four weeks earlier, six made their last pre-Derby start five weeks earlier, and only one winner, Animal Kingdom, made his last pre-Derby start six weeks earlier. Yes, Regret won the Derby in her seasonal debut, but that was in 1915; nobody in recent years has won while returning from such a lengthy layoff as eight weeks.
10. Honor A. P. (John Shirreffs) 3-1-2-0 $122,200 Honor Code
Comment: Honor A. P. chased Authentic home but never offered a serious challenge, making up less than a length on the leader in the final five-sixteenths of a mile. But that was Honor A. P.’s stakes debut and his first start in nearly five months; the inexperienced colt is likely to take a significant step forward in the Santa Anita Derby.
11. Enforceable (Mark Casse) 8-2-2-2 $347,150 Tapit
Comment: Enforceable breezed Saturday for the first time since his runner-up finish in the faster division of the Risen Star, going five-eighths of a mile in 1:01 in New Orleans. His Risen Star effort was impressive in that he had his momentum interrupted twice, but still rallied strongly when clear. He’s by Tapit, who has sired three winners of the Belmont Stakes, and Enforceable’s dam, Justwhistledixie, won the Bonnie Miss at nine furlongs. Enforceable runs and looks like the type who’s going to relish the longer distances coming up.
12. Three Technique (Jeremiah Englehart) 5-2-3 $154,750 Mr. Speaker
Comment: In preparation for Saturday’s Rebel, Three Technique worked an easy but solid half-mile Saturday in :48.80 seconds. Having not run since the Smarty Jones Stakes, he appears to be sharp going into the Rebel. Last week he displayed his readiness for a big effort when he worked a bullet half-mile in 46 seconds, going in company with the older Wendell Fong, who subsequently finished third in the Hot Springs Stakes. In the Smarty Jones, Three Technique showed both talent and tenacity. He raced wide, encountered some trouble and overcame a speed-kind surface to finish second; now he seems poised to step forward. The “three technique,” by the way, refers to the defensive lineman who lines up just outside the guard, an especially appropriate name given the colt’s owner, Super Bowl-winning coach Bill Parcells.
13. Eight Rings (Bob Baffert) 4-2-0-0 $236,951 Empire Maker
Comment: With his six-length victory in the American Pharoah Stakes, he was one of the best and most highly regarded juveniles of 2019. And then he faded after stalking the pace in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. But his recent workouts suggest he could soon refurbish his reputation in his return to competition. Working out of the gate at Santa Anita last week with an unraced maiden named JZ My Man, Eight Rings shot a bullet for three-quarters of a mile. He left the gate quickly to establish a short advantage and then began drawing away in the turn. He was clearly in front when the exercise rider called on him; his workmate pulled up in mid-stretch (59.80 seconds for five-eighths). Eight Rings stopped the official clock at 1:11.80 and galloped out strongly. And on Monday, he fired another bullet while working with the 5-year-old stakes winner Ax Man. Eight Rings appeared to be pressed a little more than his stablemate, but they were well matched, completing three-quarters of a mile in 1:12 and galloping out strongly together. Eight Rings would have gone to Oaklawn Park for the Rebel, Baffert said, if the race had been split into two divisions, as it has been sometimes in the past. But he’s “nominated to everything” and will soon return to competition.
14. Gouverneur Morris (Todd Pletcher) 3-2-1-0 $161,500 Constitution
Comment: Saturday at Palm Beach Downs in Florida, Gouverneur Morris worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01.79. He has only four qualifying points, and so he and his connections will put all their Derby hopes in a single basket, a final prep. Todd Pletcher, said he’s keeping his options open but is primarily looking at the Florida Derby, as well as the Blue Grass on April 4. Patently talented, Gouverneur Morris has considerable potential, and from here it appears that he’s being aimed not so much at the Derby as at the realization of that potential down the road.
15. Max Player (Linda Rice) 3-2-1-0 $173,500 Honor Code
Comment: He worked three-quarters of a mile Sunday at Belmont Park in 1:13.89 as he prepares for the Wood Memorial on April 4. He’s flying under the radar but could very well land in the Derby; he appears to have considerable room for development and improvement. When he won the Withers Stakes, his inexperience showed: He raced five-to-six-wide in the second turn, but he drew clear to win by more than three lengths. It was a relatively slow race. But there’s potential, and he could become an intriguing player with a big step forward in the Wood Memorial on April 4.
16. Silver State (Steve Asmussen) 4-1-2-1 $136,106 Hard Spun
Comment: Monday at Fair Grounds in New Orleans, he worked three-quarters of a mile in 1:11.60 in company with the highly regarded Chestertown. They had the bullet, as you’d expect. Of more importance, they both appeared to be moving easily and comfortably, with little encouragement. “The track was a little fast,” Steve Asmussen said, “but they’re both very talented horses that I’m excited about. It’s an exciting time.” Silver State finished third in the faster division of the Risen Star and second, after a troubled trip, in the Lecomte Stakes. Is that workout the signal that he’s ready to step forward March 21 in the Louisiana Derby?
17. Mischevious Alex (John Servis) 7-4-1-1 $344,230 Into Mischief
Comment: After he won the Swale, his connections indicated the colt would focus on one-turn races; and so they went to the one-turn-mile Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct. Well, he won the Gotham, and with that he has earned a shot at the nine-furlong Wood Memorial on April 4 and maybe the Derby. He has 50 qualifying points; so he’s in the Derby if his connections reach for the roses, and he clearly deserves an opportunity to prove himself in the Wood. But the feeling here is that his connections were right initially and he has little inclination to race beyond a mile. Yes, he won the Gotham by two lengths, and although the clocking was pedestrian, 1:38.80, the surface was very dull. But he ran the second half-mile in 51.54 seconds. In winning the Stymie the same day, Diamond King ran the second half-mile in 50.87 seconds; Will Sing For Wine won a one-mile maiden race by running the second half-mile in 50.43 seconds. A son of Into Mischief, Mischevious Alex is out of the Speightstown mare White Pants Night, who won two races in her career, at three-quarters of a mile and 5 1/2 furlongs.
18. Dennis’ Moment (Dale Romans) 5-2-0-0 $171,800 Tiznow
Comment: Still no explanation for what went wrong — terribly wrong — in the Fountain of Youth, where Dennis’ Moment finished last as the 6-5 favorite, and there may never be one. For now, just concede that his “performance” was one of those riddles wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma. (Winston Churchill, by the way, owned horses.) Still, moving forward, with just 10 qualifying points, he’ll have only one race to earn his way into the Derby starting gate. The difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that he got nothing positive — no conditioning, no useful experience — out of the Fountain of Youth. He’ll probably return April 4 in the Blue Grass.
19. Storm the Court (Peter Eurton) 6-2-0-2 $1,232,951 Court Vision
Comment: He didn’t break sharply and raced wide in the San Felipe, but he had no real excuse: He just couldn’t stay with the leaders down the stretch, finishing third. He could move forward from that, and he has 32 qualifying points; so he’s clearly on the road to Kentucky. But at this point, he’s at least five lengths behind the leaders in the division, and so it’s reasonable to wonder how much of an impact he could have. He could be the sort that needs everything to go his way if he’s to succeed. He’ll take to the road to find his next start.
20. Modernist (Bill Mott) 4-2-0-1 $288,800 Uncle Mo
Comment: He fired another bullet Tuesday, going five-eighths of a mile in 1:02.20 at the Payson Training Center, where the surface doesn’t yield fast times. This was his second workout and his second bullet since his upset victory in the Risen Star Stakes. The victory in New Orleans appears to have flipped a switch with this colt. In his entire career, going back to last summer at Saratoga, he has recorded four bullet workouts, two of them in the last eight days. With his 50 points from the Risen Star, he has reserved his place in the Derby starting gate, but he needs to take a significant step forward if he’s going to join the leading contenders.
21. Charlatan (Bob Baffert) 1-1-0-0 $33,000 Speightstown
Comment: He turned in another show-stopping workout Sunday, going three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.60 at Santa Anita while racing in the four-path and drawing away from a stablemate by several lengths. Charlatan’s inclusion here, like Great Power’s, indicates just how much the road to the Derby has changed in the last dozen years — or rather how much the attitudes and opinions about getting to the Derby have changed. In 2008, Big Brown won the Derby in just the fourth start of his career. Ten years later, Justify won the Derby in just the fourth start of his career and swept the Triple Crown. And it’ll be no surprise if one or maybe two horses in this year’s Derby will be making only their fourth start. Charlatan has flashed brilliance, and he’s a son of a sprint champion, and so from here the classic distance looks like a bit of stretch for him. He obviously needs to get some points soon, and Baffert said he’s looking at several options for his next start.
22. Great Power (Simon Callaghan) 1-1-0-0 $30,000 Blame
Comment: Great Power continues to impress in the mornings in California. The big guy is a runner and will make some noise in the division, possibly in the Triple Crown series. Sunday at Santa Anita, he worked five-eighths of a mile in company with Stretford End, a 4-year-old maiden who has finished second five times in his career — six, if you count this workout. Great Power left the pole about five lengths back but steadily gained from the outside; in the turn, Stretford End drifted out, and Great Power, angling inside, moved to the lead and then steadily drew clear, finishing six lengths in front while being asked only in the final furlong. He then galloped out strongly. He stopped the official clock at 1:00, which was the second-fastest move of the morning, two lengths slower than Nadal’s 59.60 seconds.
23. Chestertown (Steve Asmussen) 4-1-2-1 $61,540 Tapit
Comment: Purchased for $2 million as a 2-year-old, Chestertown could be one of the more intriguing horses to merge onto the Derby road in the next few weeks. His recent workout in company with Silver State — three-quarters in 1:11.60, a full second faster than older stakes horses Tenfold and Gun It — urges a consideration of his potential. And his last outing in a nine-furlong allowance affair, where he rallied from last and finished second despite a troubled trip, hints at the possibilities. He was blocked in traffic, had to alter course, lugged in through the stretch while on his wrong lead and still ran the final three-eighths of a mile in 36.80 seconds. He could emerge from the shadows in the Louisiana Derby.
24. Thousand Words (Bob Baffert) 4-3-0-0 $235,000 Pioneerof The Nile
Comment: Thousand Words was a length back after the opening half-mile of the San Felipe and from there steadily retreated, finishing fourth, more than 11 lengths behind Authentic. Perhaps he’s a miler. Or maybe Thousand Words was too close to the lively pace and will be more effective if taken back and allowed to make a late run. That could be the plan for his next outing, which could be almost anywhere except Santa Anita as Bob Baffert tries to keep his Triple Crown candidates separated.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.