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Kentucky Derby

Predicting the Bob Baffert Brigade for 2019 Kentucky Derby

Michael Spector

It’s a good problem to have.

With a barn full of so many talented young colts, two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer Bob Baffert’s biggest issue along the 2019 Kentucky Derby trail may be maximizing the amount of points that his various charges can accumulate in order to make the Churchill Downs gate on the first Saturday of May. With the way things look right now, Baffert’s top stock could number six or seven of the 20 Derby starters, surpassing the record of five runners by a single trainer in a Kentucky Derby. The record-holders are Todd Pletcher (2007 & 2013), Nick Zito (2005), and D. Wayne Lukas (1996).

Besides keeping his top prospects healthy and fostering their development over the next four months, Baffert will need to concoct a plan to run his horses in separate races, thereby obtainining those coveted Derby points while also appeasing his many high-class owners.

It’s really not a problem for the ultra-cool Baffert, though, as he doesn’t usually plan too far in advance and has lived by the motto, “Whoever is ready to run that week, then they’ll run.” Baffert relies on his eyes to tell him who’s ready based on their most recent workouts, and being flexible with his arrangements has worked out just fine in recent years; he has won five Kentucky Derbies in his illustrious career.

Can we peek into the master’s mind and predict where – and how – he’ll divide and conquer this year’s Derby trail, though? Based on Baffert’s recent trail trends, let’s dive into a speculative exercise to predict where to see Baffert’s many Derby prospects this winter and spring.

Blazing the Trail First

Starting off 2019 will likely be the impressive maiden-winner Coliseum. On “At The Races with Steve Byk,” Baffert mentioned that Coliseum is targeting the Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on January 5. The Godolphin homebred garnered lots of attention even before cruising on debut, drawing off by 6 3/4 lengths while going 7 furlongs at Del Mar in mid-November. This is the first time that the globally-dominant Godolphin has provided horses to Baffert, and the objective is clear: finally winning a Kentucky Derby. The son of Tapit has put in strong recent works at Santa Anita in preparation for the Sham, including back-to-back bullet 6-furlong works on December 19 and 24, and looks like he’s ready to explode.

Coliseum’s Next Race Prediction: Grade 3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita on January 5

Another regally-bred Baffert trainee stringing together a set of good works at Santa Anita is the recent maiden-winner Kingly. The full brother to multiple Grade 2 winner Mohaymen (who was a future book Kentucky Derby favorite in 2016), Kingly was bred by Clearsky Farms runs under their racing operation, Clearview Stables. You may recall that Clearsky also bred the 2016 3-year-old champion Arrogate, who Baffert put in the winner’s circle in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the Group 1 Dubai World Cup. Kingly must live up to his gutty debut maiden-breaking win at Del Mar on December 1, but he is already back in training. Baffert always uses Oaklawn Park to get Derby points, so a run in the $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes on January 25 could be Kingly’s next start.

Kingly’s Next Race Prediction: $150k Smarty Jones Stakes at Oaklawn on January 25

Still focusing on the horses that are currently posting recorded workouts, Roadster is another top prospect for the white-haired training legend who has strung along a series of recent works and might get on the Derby trail in the coming months. Owned by Speedway Stable (who also partnered with Baffert on multiple graded stakes wins with Collected), Roadster was known long before his debut when Baffert was pressed by a TMZ reporter for his next big horse after Justify’s Triple Crown. Baffert replied, “Roadster!” He didn’t disappoint, winning his 6-furlong debut by over 4 lengths at Del Mar to end July. A third-place finish as the odds-on favorite in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity disappointed his backers, but it was discovered after the race that he had a breathing problem, so he went under the knife to correct the issue. Off since the beginning of September until returning to the work tab in late November, it’s possible that Baffert will need to try to find Roadster a rarely-written allowance, but if not, he’ll go straight to a stakes race. With his history of breathing issues, Baffert may keep him home for at least one race before considering shipping him.

Roadster’s Next Race Prediction: Allowance at Santa Anita or Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on February 10

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Baffert’s Big Boys

While Baffert gears up his more lightly-raced charges, the top two in his barn, Game Winner and Improbable, are enjoying some short rest before getting back to business in the coming month. Both have already shown the ability to ship and win at Churchill, so that won’t be a reason for either one to not ship to Oaklawn. With Game Winner owned by Gary and Mary West (who ran 3-year-old champ West Coast with Baffert) and Improbable owned by the WinStar Farm/China Horse Club conglomerate that owned Justify, Baffert once again has a set of an important owners to appease, so he will likely keep these two beasts apart until they both hopefully make the Churchill gate on the first Saturday of May.

The expected champion 2-year-old male, Game Winner just recently started galloping again after his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile victory in early November. Baffert has said that Game Winner will resume serious training in January.

Having already accumulated enough Derby points to make the gate, there’s no need to rush Game Winner into an early Derby prep race, so Baffert will likely use the “two preps, then Kentucky Derby” approach that has become the norm for top juvenile performers in recent years. Baffert has always used Santa Anita and Oaklawn Park as his personal playgrounds for his best Derby prospects, so a next start in the Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 9 or the Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn on March 16 is likely for Game Winner.

Game Winner’s Next Race Prediction: Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 9 or Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 16

Wherever Game Winner doesn’t go, then that’s where Improbable will pop up. After his impressive wins in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs and the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity, many have ranked Improbable at the top of the crop.

Improbable’s Next Race Prediction: wherever Game Winner doesn’t go; Grade 2 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on March 9 or Grade 2 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on March 16

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Best of the Rest

I could keep detailing all of the Baffert Derby horses and trying to predict how they’ll shake out in the coming months, but that would be impossible, so instead, I’ll sum up the best of the rest in his barn:

Mucho Gusto: The Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes winner finished second in the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Futurity and may be shipped around the country, as Baffert recently told the Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman. He hasn’t gotten back on the worktab since the Los Al Futurity, though, so his next race might not be until the Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn on February 18 for owner Michael Lund Petersen, who also campaigned the Grade 1 Met Mile winner Mor Spirit with Baffert.

Mucho Gusto’s Next Race Prediction: Grade 3 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park on February 18

Cruel Intention: The Golden State Juvenile Stakes winner over a next-out stakes crusher Galilean, this son of Smiling Tiger hasn’t had a workout since that race in early November. Baffert said during an interview on “At The Races with Steve Byk” that he was getting a rest, so a target for the California-bred to try open company for the first time may be a little bit down the Derby trail.

Cruel Intention’s Next Race Prediction: Grade 2 San Vicente at Santa Anita on February 10

Metropol: This debut winner going 6 1/2 furlongs at Santa Anita on October 8 was entered in the Grade 3 Bob Hope Stakes, but he was forced to scratch after he spiked a fever before the race. He has since put in three straight works at Santa Anita and looks no worse for the wear, but there is still reason to speculate that Baffert will give the son of Shackleford another race sprinting before stretching him out.

Metropol’s Next Race Prediction: Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes at Santa Anita on February 10

Much Better: After breaking his maiden on the dirt sprinting, Baffert switched this son of Pioneerof the Nile to the turf, where he ran second in the $100,000 Zuma Beach Stakes, but then ran last of 14 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. With six straight works on the Santa Anita dirt since the Breeders’ Cup – including bullets at 5 and 6 furlongs – a return to dirt is likely, and a try on the Derby trail may be the next move.

Much Better’s Next Race Prediction: Allowance routing on dirt or Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita on February 2

On the Sidelines

Maiden debut winners Magic On Tap and Tale of the Union are both receiving rest after having setbacks, Baffert said in his “At The Races with Steve Byk” appearance. Also, Count Di Luna hasn’t worked out since his maiden-breaker on debut at Santa Anita to start November.

This is just an exercise of speculation on what next races these horses may target while using input from recent media reports. We’ll see if we’re able to reach out to Baffert in the coming months to get more information, but as I said earlier, Baffert runs who’s ready on any given week. He has an outline of what he wants to do, but I honestly believe that even he doesn’t know who’s going where until close to these races’ entry times.

With so many high-class owners having supported him in the past, and now adding the global icon Godolphin into the mix, Baffert will want to keep these horses as separated as he can, but inevitably, he’ll have to start multiple horses in the same races. For example, I’m predicting that Baffert will run multiple horses in the one-turn Grade 2 San Vincente Stakes to sharpen some of his runners that are coming off of layoffs, and that’s not even a Derby prep race that provides points.

For the most part, Baffert will likely continue focusing on races at Santa Anita and Oaklawn, but when it comes to the 100-point races later down the trail, we could see him ship to New York for the Grade 2 Wood Memorial (like he did last year with Restoring Hope) or even enter the Grade 2 Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. He also always has an entry or two for the Grade 3 Sunland Derby, so there’s yet another spot where he’ll try to capture coveted Derby points for one or two of his prospects.

The Derby trail starts with Baffert, and it will probably end with him in the winner’s circle for his record-tying sixth time. We’ll see if any other trainers can challenge his cavalcade in the coming months.

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