On Track With Johnny D: Breaking News !

Saturday night, I received an e-mail with the following headline: Breaking News…Baffert Sweeps Oaklawn 3-year-old Stakes!

What’s next? Just In…Sun Set in the West! Film at 11.

It should be breaking news only when Bob Baffert doesn’t train the winner of a 3-year-old graded stakes race at Oaklawn Park. The Hall-of-Fame trainer has been treating sophomore Hot Springs heats like personal ATMs for about a decade. Since 2010, he’s won 4 of 12 Gr. 3 Southwest Stakes renewals (including both divisions in 2012); 7 of the last 12 Gr. 2 Rebel Stakes (the race was split in 2019); and 4 of the last 12 Gr. 1 Arkansas Derbies (including both divisions of Saturday’s event).

One thing Baffert hadn’t done before Saturday is win two Arkansas Derbies in a single day. He probably would have if given the chance, but the race hadn’t split since 1960, when Hall-of-Fame trainer Marion Van Berg and Monte D. Parker saddled Spring Broker and Persian Gold, respectively, to win. At that time, Baffert was a Nogales, AZ schoolboy in short pants, dreaming of becoming a jockey.

In some ways, Hot Springs, AK developed into a destination for Bob Baffert-trained runners out of necessity. His Santa Anita-based sophomore cup runneth over so often that he’s forced to ship players out of town so that they don’t prematurely clash with each other. Plus, Oaklawn Park is a productive training ground for Kentucky Derby winners. For that matter, so is Gulfstream Park, but that destination’s about twice as far from California and offers a soph schedule that concludes with the Gr. 1 Florida Derby in late March—roughly six weeks from the Kentucky version. On the other hand, the Gr. 1 Arkansas Derby usually is held in mid-April, two weeks closer to the first Saturday in May.

Baffert’s outfit really has the Arcadia-to-Little Rock connection down pat. Jim Barnes, Baffert’s remarkable assistant, executes details while the white-haired general formulates strategic battle plans. Baffert runners usually hit and run–out of town with the loot faster than you can say John Dillinger. A bath, dinner, a few winks and then it’s a limo ride to Little Rock airport for a semi-private flight home. First class all the way. And there’s usually no on board celebrating permitted. Job’s not done, boys. Time to focus on the big one in Louisville with all the roses.

This season, things are different. Sheesh! What an understatement. Let’s try that line again. This season is like no other…ever. Kentucky on the first Saturday in May? Not this year. COVID 19 transferred proceedings to Oaklawn Park for a pair of derbies where the track handled more than twice as much money in a single day as they ever have before. The Kentucky Derby now will be on the first Saturday in September. Let’s hope we’re well enough to safely make that date.

If we do, based on what we’ve seen so far, we can look forward to a smashing, though delayed, renewal of the Run for the Roses. Due to swirling uncertainty, September seems like forever from now. Race schedules are up in the air. Which currant horses are likely to last until Labor Day? Who might emerge during the summer as a bright new talent capable of threatening the beasts we’ve come to know during an extended ‘prep’ season that, ultimately, really didn’t contain any ‘prep’ races at all?

Unfortunately, we don’t have answers about what the future might look like. We can guess a bit based on history, but we don’t know. Horseplayers are used to that process. It’s what we do every time we make a wager on what might happen based on past performances.

During winter, it had become somewhat clear that the leading 3-year-olds were Tiz the Law and three or four sophomores trained by Bob Baffert. At the time, we weren’t certain which actually were the best-of-the-Bafferts but it seemed he had a few worthy of consideration.

Now, in spring, with Mother’s Day looming Sunday, Gr. 1 Champagne, Gr. 3 Holy Bull and Gr. 1 Florida Derby winner Tiz the Law remains best in the east. He’s joined at the top nationally by divisional Gr. 1 Arkansas Derby heroes Charlatan and Nadal. Also, in the picture is Gr. 2 San Felipe Stakes winner Authentic—the Baffert-trained probable favorite in a re-scheduled Gr. 1 Santa Anita Derby June 6. Some might add GR. 2 San Felipe runner-up Honor A. P. to the list as an improving possibility, although he’ll need to make up two and one-quarter lengths on Authentic.

Ignoring for a minute what we don’t know, we can be certain that going forward Charlatan and Nadal are forces to be reckoned with. The former bent first division Arkansas Derby foes over his knees—all four–and soundly spanked them. Breaking from the rail post position, he assumed command before the first turn and set daunting fractions his foes couldn’t even attempt to match. His final stanza of the mile and one-eighth journey was accomplished in :13 1/5—not particularly fast—but still way more late speed than was required for a six-length victory. Some have since suggested that a classic mile and one-quarter distance would not work in his favor and that may be true–sire Speightstown is not known for producing distance runners. But Charlatan’s alacrity will discourage many from testing him. Only a serious early challenge could cause his legs to wobble in the lane.

Ironically, Charlatan’s stablemate Nadal is such an animal. In the other division, he stalked/forced a pace mostly set by Well’s Bayou that was nearly identical to Charlatan’s–:23 to :22 4/5; :46 1/5 to 46; 1:09 4/5 to 1:09 3/5 and 1:35 3/5 to 1:35 1/5. The difference is that Nadal seemed to grow stronger in the final eighth, which was faster than Charlatan’s– :12 3/5 to :13 1/5. Removed from respective divisions and matched against each other in a virtual mile and one-quarter race it appears as if the Baffert exacta would come a cold Nadal over Charlatan.

After Saturday, it’s time to cement some opinions about other 3-year-olds in the Arkansas Derbies. Anneau d’Or has not lived up to some nice 2-year-old efforts. No more excuses. He just hasn’t improved. Same probably can be said for freshman champion Storm the Court, who’s now winless in three chances this year. Finnick the Fierce ran a solid race to finish third behind Nadal and seems to be improving. King Guillermo ran well-enough, too, to finish just in front of ‘Finnick. Behind Charlatan there wasn’t much. Basin was a no-threat second all the way around and Gouverneur Morris grinded his way to third.

A currently blank schedule of 3-year-old races this summer eventually will coalesce and delight us in an unusual way. How might things turn out if the 2020 sophomore schedule develops chronologically something like this: Gr. 3 Matt Winn, Gr. 1 Santa Anita Derby, Gr. 1 Belmont, Gr. 1 Haskell, Gr. 1 Travers, Gr. 1 Kentucky Derby, Gr. 1 Preakness?

No one can know. However, if Bob Baffert trains the winner of this year’s Kentucky Derby, it won’t be breaking news.

Be Well and Take Care of Each Other Out There. Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Breaking News !

On Track with Johnny D |