Bob Baffert has experienced many highs and lows in his long and successful training career. But rarely has he experienced both in the matter of a minute.
Mastery, his undefeated 3-year old, had just smoked a very competitive field by 6 ¾ lengths in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. Baffert, as is his custom when he wins, left his box and was heading toward the winner's circle.
""You see what he did today was just incredible and puts him as the best 3-year-old in the nation. So I'm walking down and I hear one of the fans say, 'I hope your horse is all right,'" Baffert said. "What? 'They're unsaddling him.'"
The diagnosis was a condylar fracture of his left front leg, a common thoroughbred injury.
"When he got back to the barn, he seemed OK," Baffert said. "But when he got off the wash rack, he showed some filling in his left front ankle. … He'll be operated on Monday and they'll insert two screws. We won't know until after the surgery whether or not this is career ending."
About 50 yards past the finish line, jockey Mike Smith said he felt something and he immediately started to pull up the horse as he entered the turn.
"All of a sudden he just kind of picked his back leg up," Smith said. "To be honest at that point I didn't know what it was. You can never really tell until you get off the horse. After a minute or so of walking he put it down and he was fine."
Mastery walked onto the van that is used to take injured horses off the track.
"Talking to you guys right now is pretty tough until you know he's OK," Baffert said in the horseless winner's circle. "You go from seeing something like he's the next coming and then something like that happens. I've never dealt with something like this."
Mastery, the favorite at 4-5, led almost the entire race. He took to the rail entering the first turn and never relinquished the lead. Through the backstretch the race had set up just as everyone thought, with Gormley second and Iliad third. Around the final turn Gormley started to settle back and Iliad moved into second.
That's when Mastery kicked into gear and ran away from the field.
"The power is endless with this guy," Smith said. "He's some kind of strong. He was just hitting gears every time I asked him. Gear down one, gear up two. Everything seemed to come easy for him."
Mastery paid $3.60 to win, $2.40 to place and $2.10 to show. Iliad paid $3.40 and $2.60. Term Of Art returned $5.40.
Doug O'Neill, trainer of Iliad, was happy with his colt's effort going around two turns for the first time.
"He just got a little tired," O'Neill said. "[Jockey] Flavien [Prat] said between the three-eighths and the quarter pole, he thought he could win it. … If he stays healthy, we'll shoot for the Santa Anita Derby."
Gormley, the 2-1 second favorite, had a disappointing fourth-place finish for trainer John Shirreffs.
"Gormley was good all the way around," jockey Victor Espinoza said. "I thought he'd finish second. It seems like he's OK, but these young horses, they're still figuring it out."
The injury to Mastery muddies an already unclear Kentucky Derby picture, especially as far as West Coast horses are concerned. With only one major prep to go for most of the top horses, it seems as if trying to pick a winner now really is a gamble.