By Jalen Santos
California racing is dominated by the same man year-round, and that man is also the most controversial figure in horse racing. Who is it you may ask? He goes by many names such as The White-Haired Wizard or The White-Haired Wonder and more, his real name? Bob Baffert. Most years he rules the Kentucky Derby picture. He won it with the likes of Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, War Emblem in 2002, Horse of The Year Authentic in 2020 and Medina Spirit 2021 who would eventually be disqualified after testing positive for Betamethasone after the race. But, most famously of all, he won with triple crown and Breeders Cup Classic winner American Pharoah in 2015, and Triple Crown winner Justify, the only horse to ever win the triple crown and retire undefeated.
After the 2021 Kentucky Derby, he was handed a 90-day suspension, a two-year ban from Churchill Downs. A two-year ban from all NYRA owned tracks and horses under his care were ruled no longer allowed to gain KY derby or KY oaks points under his care. Just recently, CDI released a new gut punch to Baffert, ruling that horses under his care must be transferred to another trainer by February 28th or they will not be eligible for the triple crown. This is the result of him bringing up Messier and Taiba through the ranks until the Santa Anita Derby, where just a week or two before, they were transferred to Baffert protege Tim Yakteen to a 1-2 finish in the Santa Anita Derby en route to off the board finishes at Churchill Downs, before going back to Baffert.
Despite Churchill Downs and NYRA doing all this to limit Baffert, he continues to dominate the California two- and three-year-old scene and is a force to be reckoned with in the older horse scene, notable Country Grammar who finished second in the 2022 Saudi Cup and came home winner of the 2022 Dubai World Cup. This year, it is no different so far and come Saturday the Robert B. Lewis (Gr.3) will be run, offering Kentucky Derby points to the top five finishers, well, not exactly. First, there are only four horses in the race so they can’t give points to the top five if there is only a top four. The second reason is that Baffert trains the entire field of the B. Lewis, being Arabian Lion, Newgate, Worcester and Hard To Figure.
So, let’s run through the field. First, Arabian Lion who drew the rail. He will be piloted by one of Baffert’s most trusted, the veteran, Johnny Velazquez, the colt will be making his three-year-old debut after three prior races. First, the son of former Baffert trainee Justify won on debut at Santa Anita in October. He won the $61,000 maiden going six furlongs by three lengths in 1:09.78 gate to wire over fellow son of Justify, Elwood Blues, through fractions of 21.96, 44.90 and 57.36 drawing away late. That drew a 90 Equibase speed figure. For his second career race, he was taken to Keeneland in early November, right before the Breeders Cup. He finished second in a $160,000 Allowance Optional Claimer drawing a 104 Equibase speed figure after stalking the whole way and getting beat just under a length while finishing 18 lengths ahead of the rest of the field. Including Old Alliance, Protege and Tap In Formation. The horse who beat him? Giant Mischief who came back to run second in the Springboard Mile for the first defeat of his career. In that race, he was piloted for the first time by leading rider Irad Ortiz Jr. after being piloted by Ramon Vasquez.
From there, it all went wrong for the Baffert trainee after his first two starts making him look like he could be something special, skipping home in brisk times on debut to finishing second, 18 lengths ahead of the next horse behind him in his second career race to highly regarded, stakes placed, Giant Mischief. His next race he was back in California and Baffert decided he was ready for a stakes test, so he was entered in the $200,000 Los Alamitos Futurity (Gr.2) on December 17th at Los Alamitos. There, he finished fifth and ran a 78 Equibase speed figure after running a 90 and then 104 in winning and runner up efforts. He finished dead last in the five-horse field, beaten 12 lengths after stalking early and then hitting a wall and fading out, never making a real bid. Now, it could be he couldn’t handle two turns, going from six furlongs to seven furlongs and then trying two turns at a mile and a sixteenth, or, it could have been the track.
Over the years, Los Alamitos has proven to be an unpredictable track where horses might be long odds and win easily, or horses as promising as Arabian Lion with as clean records can finish dead last without ever challenging the lead. The colt is sired by triple crown winner Justify and out of Unbound, who spent the majority of her career in Japan winning three of twelve races. Her sire, Distorted Humor, produced the likes of Drosselmeyer, Funny Cide, Commentator and many others. The pedigree says distance shouldn’t be an issue. I’m going to write it off as some other excuse or just not liking Los Alamitos so this horse will be worth a try in his first start as a three-year-old if he has a form reversal.
In post two is Newgate, this son of leading sire Into Mischief to be piloted by European sensation Frankie Dettori drew early attention after his debut performance, even being compared to the likes of previously mentioned Kentucky Derby and Breeders Cup Classic winning Horse of The Year, Authentic.
The newly turned three-year-old won on debut on July 30th at Del Mar, stalking the pace and drawing off in the stretch to win by a little more than three lengths in an $80,000 five-and-a-half-furlong sprint which drew an 89 Equibase speed figure for the win. He would come back September 11th to finish fourth in the Runhappy Del Mar Futurity (Gr.1) and two of the three horses that beat him, were Baffert’s being the highly regarded Cave Rock and recent impressive San Vicente (Gr.2) winner Havnameltdown. Newgate sat third, within a length of the leader early through fractions of 21.56, 43.65 and 1:08.55 and faded to fourth in the stretch. That effort drew a 75 Equibase speed figure. After that, he bounced back to draw a 91 Equibase speed figure in the Claiborne Breeders Futurity (Gr.1) which was an extremely strong race as far as the Kentucky Derby trail goes. He stalked early and faded to fifth, but he was beaten by Forte, who would go on to defeat Cave Rock in an east versus west showdown in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Gr.1) and before the Breeders Futurity, he won the Hopeful (Gr.1) which is the premier two-year-old race at Saratoga.
The second-place finisher in the Breeders Futurity was Loggins who was making only the second start of his career after an impressive maiden victory. After this, he was hyped up as one of the best two-year-olds in the country and was predicted to be one of the favorites for not only the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile but the Kentucky Derby itself but has not raced since. The third place finisher was Red Route One who came back to finish off the board in the Kentucky Jockey Club (Gr.2) although I believe he was best in, en route to finishing second to very highly regarded Arabian Knight in the $750,000 Southwest Stakes (Gr.3) at Oaklawn Park, which convinced me that Red Route One is the best three year old to have raced so far this year and that he will be one of my main derby picks if he runs. The fourth-place finisher was Instant Coffee who post Breeders Futurity would go on to win the previously mentioned Kentucky Jockey Club and more recently, the Lecomte (Gr.3) at Fair Grounds, both Kentucky Derby points races.
Newgate also beat some very nice horses in that Breeders Futurity, but moving on, he went on to a second-place finish in the Bob Hope (Gr.3) at Del Mar in late November to Havnameltdown after stalking the pace but not being able to pass Havnameltdown late. That drew a 97 Equibase figure. Most recently, in his three-year-old debut on January 8th, he finished second in the Sham stakes (Gr.3) to stablemate Reincarnate by a neck. In doing so, he beat stablemate National Treasure coming out of a third-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile turning in a career best 102 Equibase figure, which is not enough to beat Arabian Lion’s surprisingly. Overall, Newgate seems like everytime he runs into really good horses that outrun him, including stablemates Cave Rock, Reincarnate, Havnameltdown and some of the best two year olds in the country at the time in the Breeders Futurity. He’s worth a shot here in such a short field with the early speed he does, he also should improve second time out as a three year old, showing good maturity from two to three last out. He’s also worth a shot and in contention with some of the best Baffert three-year-olds right now.
The third horse is Worcester, to be piloted by the leading rider at Santa Anita and Del Mar, Juan Hernandez. The colt has two races coming in and has lost both, on debut he ran fourth on Runhappy Malibu (Gr.1) day and the horse who won the race? Stablemate Faustin who just came back to finish second in the San Vicente (Gr.2) and he is very highly regarded on the Kentucky Derby trail. Other than that, he was beaten by Sonoran and Yellow Brick who were nearly as well liked as Faustin going in. He sat well back early but couldn’t make up enough ground late and that effort got him an 82 on Equibase. He came back to finish second to very well liked and extremely expensive yearling purchase Hejazi who is multiple graded stakes placed. This time he sat third throughout but couldn’t reel in Hejazi who motored home impressively. The effort brought Worcester a 102 Equibase. The son of Empire Maker out of Super Saver mare Lil Super Bear is well bred for the distance, but ultimately, he needs to show more for me to give him a chance to win and honestly, Baffert might have entered him for the stakes placing considering there is only four horses and all are trained by Baffert.
The outside horse, in post four, is Hard To Figure. The name doesn’t lie, this son of Hard Spun is hard to figure on the chances to win this race. Out of the four, this is the most likely to finish fourth. He is making his three-year-old debut, with already four starts under his belt including two third place finishes in maiden races to start his career. He broke his maiden in the Capote at Los Alamitos, and then came back to finish fifth and last in the previously mentioned Bob Hope stakes. On debut, he was behind previously mentioned Newgate and Arrowthegreat going five and a half furlongs for a 78 Equibase. The latter has not come back yet. Second time out, he was beaten by Carmel Road and Riverside going a mile, who both have come back to not do great. That race attracted a 71 Equibase. He came from there to win the Capote with a big 94 Equibase beating Massimo, Man Child, Top Of My Game and Flame Rider who none of which seem to be anything special, after all, it is an ungraded stake at Los Alamitos. After that, he was beaten by Havnameltdown, Newgate, Practical Move and Mxito. The first three all good California horses right now, two of which are graded stakes winners. In that race, Hard To Figure declined 20 points to a 74 Equibase.
Overall, this race seems as though being changed from the B. Lewis to the B. Baffert might not be that far off if we keep seeing fields like this. Funnily enough, it also seems like they more inside the better they are in this race, and it seems like a two-horse race between Arabian Lion and Newgate while Worcester and Hard To Figure will be well back, and Hard to Figure finishing last, the race should be interesting as far as whos who of the Baffert three-year-olds, as California three-year-old stakes often are.