Trainer Bob Baffert having the favorite for the Kentucky Derby is about as routine as it gets in horse racing. But to have that distinction this early is a little different.
Game Winner didn’t dazzle with flash Friday but instead overcame several obstacles to win the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. In many ways, it was a more impressive performance than all the horses winning on the lead during a day that clearly favored speed.
The 2-year-old Game Winner broke a step slow, had to run wide for most of the race, then endured a bump down the stretch before winning by 2 1/4 lengths.
Baffert has had no shortage of great horses lately, be it Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify or late developing Arrogate, West Coast and McKinzie. None ran in the Juvenile. Baffert had previously won the Juvenile with Vindication (2002), Midshipman (2008) and New Year’s Day (2013), and none of them made it to the Kentucky Derby.
“The way he won and the way he did it is pretty impressive,” Baffert said. “It’s a good feeling. At the eighth pole I started thinking some roses, you know?”
Complexity, the second favorite behind Game Winner, broke on top and seemed to have a comfortable lead in the 1 1/16-mile race. But after about three-quarters of a mile, Knicks Go poked his head in front and Game Winner had worked his way from seventh to third. Knicks Go took the lead entering the stretch as Game Winner came up on his outside. They ran stride for stride, even bumping each other, until the final 200 yards when Game Winner took command.
“I’ve been telling [co-owner] Gary [West] all along I think he’s special,” Baffert said. “But I didn’t want to get him too excited because … they’ll break your heart coming in here. But of all the Breeders’ Cup races, this is the one I really wanted because there’s nothing like having a 2-year-old when you’re thinking spring classic and everything else.”
Game Winner paid $4, $3.20 and $2.80. Knicks Go was second and Signalman was third.
Owners Gary and Mary West also have West Coast going in the Classic on Saturday, when most of Louisville seems more interested in the Kentucky-Georgia football game than the city’s second biggest day of racing. Friday’s chilled-to-the-bone crowd was 42,249. Things are expected to warm up Saturday.
Game Winner is undefeated in four races, three of them Grade 1s. New York-based Joel Rosario, who pulled off a double by also winning the Juvenile Fillies, rode him for the third time. Baffert’s regular big-horse rider, Mike Smith, chose Roadster as his 2-year-old, but the colt was pulled from the track for more maturity after finishing third to Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity.
“I thought he was a good horse,” Baffert said. “But he’s a lot better than I thought he was. For him to do what he did that last quarter-mile, and for him to give that horse a head start like that, being that wide, that’s a serious horse.”
Game Winner probably won’t race again until February, probably at Santa Anita.
There were four other Breeders’ Cup races Friday.
In what has to be considered a major disappointment, Santa Anita-based Bellafina ran a lackluster fourth in the Juvenile Fillies. Trainer Simon Callaghan had called her the best filly he’d ever trained, and at one time he had Abel Tasman. Bellafina won her last three races with ease and went off as the favorite.
“I had a good trip, but she never did feel quite right,” Prat said. “She wasn’t running smooth. I don’t know if she didn’t like the track or if it was an off day.”
In the other three juvenile turf races, it was mostly all about speed as Bulletin ($10.60 to win) won the 5 1/2-furlong Turf Sprint by 2 3/4 lengths and Newspaperofrecord ($3.20) was dominating in winning the Fillies Turf by 6 3/4 lengths. The turf course was labeled as good after two days of rain, but it was clear that closers were at a disadvantage.
That is until the Juvenile Turf, the penultimate Breeders’ Cup race Friday. Line Of Duty ($9) came flying at the end after being as far back as eighth. He was bouncing all over the track and had to survive a stewards inquiry for bumping the second-place horse, Uncle Benny, deep in the stretch.
There are nine more Breeders’ Cup races Saturday and Baffert will be hoping to pick up another win with either West Coast or McKinzie in the $6-million Classic.