Santa Anita has gone to great lengths to protect its people from the outside world. But there is little it can do to protect them from what can go wrong inside the sport.
Witness Bob Baffert, the Hall of Fame trainer and most recognizable figure in the sport.
On May 26, it was reported that Charlatan, undefeated winner of one of the two divisions of the Arkansas Derby, reportedly tested positive for an overage of lidocaine, a banned analgesic. A second test is pending.
On May 28, Nadal, the undefeated winner of the other division of the Arkansas Derby also trained by Baffert, suffered a fracture during a workout and was retired.
And on Tuesday, Arrogate, one of the best horses Baffert ever trained, was euthanized after suffering an undiagnosed neurological illness. He was only 7.
“It’s been a tough 10 days, that’s for sure,” Baffert said.
But one thing about a Baffert stable: While it is not among the biggest, it is almost always among the deepest.
Saturday, another undefeated colt, Authentic, is the favorite in the Grade 1 $400,000 Santa Anita Derby, a major Kentucky Derby prep race.
“I don’t think [in terms of] Derby preps anymore,” Baffert said. “Ever since the Kentucky Derby was postponed [until Sept. 5] you don’t think of it. It’s not like before. The excitement isn’t there yet. Back in February and March, we were excited about it. Now, it’s more like you just have to fit races in the schedule.”
The signature 3-year-old race on the Santa Anita schedule was originally set for April 4, four weeks before the Kentucky Derby. It was also supposed to be worth $1 million, but when the track was shuttered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, horse racing was but one of many sports that had to make major adjustments.
Baffert decided to keep Authentic home and send Charlatan and Nadal to Oaklawn Park, which remained open. The Arkansas Derby was split into two divisions and held three weeks later than usual, on the first Saturday in May, traditionally Kentucky Derby Day.
Because Santa Anita was not racing, Baffert had to change Authentic’s training. His last race was March 7 when he won his third start, the San Felipe Stakes.
“We backed off on him and gave him a few weeks off,” Baffert said. “Now, we’ll have to see what he does. We need him to run where he left off. It doesn’t look as if he’s gone backwards.”
Winning Saturday is not a forgone conclusion. Honor A.P., who finished second in the San Felipe, has been working well and is the 9-5 second choice behind Authentic’s 4-5.
The race will have a different feel to it, with no crowd noise when the horses enter the starting gate or hit the top of the stretch. The track is in lockdown to all but essential personnel, fewer than 100 during racing. Even the jockeys have to live in trailers in the parking lot during the race week. Everyone is tested or screened daily.
“It’s sad for the owners that they can’t even see their horses run,” Baffert said. “You have to watch on TV and there is no winner’s circle ceremony. Trainers can’t even get near the jockeys. But we all feel fortunate that the track is open and we get to run.”
The Santa Anita card Saturday has seven stakes races, but the second-most anticipated race is not one of them. Baffert has a first-time starter, Cezanne, who has very high expectations given his $3.65 million purchase price. He’ll be running in a $50,000 maiden race.
“Normally, [Cezanne] wouldn’t have a chance to run for the Derby,” Baffert said. “I just nominated three more horses [including Cezanne] for the Derby this week.”
Saturday was scheduled to be the Belmont Stakes, third leg of the Triple Crown. It will now by run June 20 as the first leg. Baffert is going to send Charlatan to New York but doesn’t know if he’ll run in the Belmont at 1 1/8 miles or the Woody Stephens at seven furlongs.
The trainer summed up this time as would many sports fans.
“I can’t wait until 2021.”