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McKinzie returns to the track after long layoff

McKinzie and jockey Mike Smith in 2017.
McKinzie and jockey Mike Smith in 2017.
(Benoit Photo )

At the beginning of the year, there was unanimity that one of the Kentucky Derby favorites was in Bob Baffert’s barn. There was an undefeated colt with a potential upside that seemed very high. Yes, all eyes were on McKinzie.

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Derby and eventually the Triple Crown. McKinzie got hurt and then there was this colt, unraced as a 2-year-old, named Justify.

“It’s like [McKinzie] fumbled the football and the big red horse ran it in for a touchdown,” Baffert said.

McKinzie will return to the track Saturday in the $1-million Pennsylvania Derby at Parx, near Philadelphia. He’s the 5-2 morning-line favorite despite not having raced in a little more than six months. The 1 1/8-mile race is loaded with talent. There is Bravazo, second in the Preakness, Hofburg, third in the Belmont and Instilled Regard, fourth in the Kentucky Derby.

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Baffert’s stated but unattainable goal is simple.

“The goal is to keep him undefeated,” Baffert said, not accepting that McKinzie crossed the finish line first in the San Felipe Stakes but was dropped to second for interference.

Then again, McKinzie benefited from a placement change in the Los Alamitos Futurity when Solomini, who crossed the line first, was judged to have interfered with Instilled Regard in the stretch. McKinzie was moved to first, but missed the winner’s circle picture because he had returned to the barn before the decision was made, and Instilled Regard was second.

McKinzie is named for Brad McKinzie, a Los Alamitos executive who died last year. He was one of Baffert’s best friends.

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“This horse is special to anybody who knew Brad, because he was special too,” Baffert said. “His good friends are glad to see the big horse back. We’re rooting for him. That’s why I was so emotional when he won [at Santa Anita in the San Felipe] and was disqualified. He’s a good horse and I’m just glad to name him after Brad. I think he got faster after I gave him the name.”

Baffert considered McKinzie’s time away from the track as more precautionary than reactive.

“It was a rear hock,” Baffert said. “It didn’t require surgery. He just stayed in the barn. We saw something was going on in the MRI scan. We just wanted to stop whatever it was before it went bad.”

If everything goes well, McKinzie will next race in the Breeders’ Cup or Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

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“I haven’t really decided,” Baffert said. “If it’s the Breeders’ Cup it would be the Classic or the Mile.”

Baffert also hasn’t ruled out the Pegasus at Gulfstream in January, and beyond.

“If he stays healthy, yeah, we’ll race him as a 4-year-old,” he said.

But first, everyone is waiting to see how he does against strong competition after a long layoff.

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Santa Anita reopens

Santa Anita reopens on Friday for its short fall meeting and has a stellar Saturday card that includes four Grade 1 races. The highlight will be the Awesome Again Stakes, often considered the West Coast prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And, the presumptive Classic favorite, Accelerate, is scheduled to run. He is coming off a dominating and record-breaking performance in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar.

The American Pharoah Stakes for 2-year-olds, formerly known as the FrontRunner, will not be the marquee race most had hoped. Instagrand and Roadster, the top two horses in the Kentucky Derby futures pool, have been shelved for the remainder of the year. Instagrand, who has won his two races by a combined 20 lengths for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, is off to “freshen up for his 3-year-old season,” according to owner Larry Best. Baffert was not happy with Roadster’s third-place finish in the Del Mar Futurity and he says the horse needs to mature some.

Game Winner, for Baffert, and Rowayton, for Hollendorfer, are scheduled to run in the American Pharoah. They finished 1-2 in the Del Mar Futurity.

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Los Alamitos closing weekend

Los Alamitos will close its Fair meeting on Sunday. The final stakes of the meet, the $100,000 Barretts Juvenile, is on Saturday. It’s a 6 ½ furlong race for 2-year-olds that were sold at a Barretts sale. Galilean, who is unraced, is the 2-1 favorite. Assael Espinoza is the leading jockey at the 12-day meet with 11 wins followed by Heriberto Figueroa with 10. Both are apprentices. Baffert is the leading trainer with an amazing six wins in 13 starts. There are five trainers with three wins.

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sports@latimes.com

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