Trainer Bob Baffert is used to having the favorite in almost any race he has entered a horse. But on Saturday at Santa Anita, he will be feeling extra pressure with the favorite in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.
McKinzie is the 3-1 morning-line choice to win the 1 ¼ mile conclusion to $30 million in purses over two days. McKinzie was named for Brad McKinzie, the longtime Los Alamitos executive and a close friend of Baffert’s since they met at the Race Track Industry Program at University of Arizona. McKinzie died of kidney cancer on Aug. 6, 2017.
“I feel a little extra pressure on me when this horse runs because I know we’re all thinking about him,” Baffert said. “I’m just glad that we named a really good horse after him because it would have been horrible if I had to geld this horse.”
No doubt, the “geld this horse” line would have been McKinzie’s if he had known there was a horse named after him.
“Brad was probably one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around,” Baffert said. “We just loved him. We still tell stories when my family gets together. There was no one more fun to be with when you went to a football game because he was just hysterical.”
Brad McKinzie also excelled when it came to making horse racing better. He helped save the Southern California thoroughbred circuit after Hollywood Park closed by persuading Los Alamitos owner Ed Allred to expand the track and add more stabling area. Along with Mike Lyon, he came up with a workers’ compensation system for backstretch workers that is widely used in the business.
McKinzie, the horse, has won three Grade 1 stakes races but of late has been finishing second. This year, he has two wins and four seconds. His second in the Metropolitan Handicap at Belmont was a race that still haunts Baffert.
“It was very frustrating to lose the Met Mile because he was so good that day,” Baffert said. “I really don’t blame [jockey] Mike [Smith] that much. He had to make a decision there and he made the wrong one.”
McKinzie followed that up with a win in the Whitney and then finished second to Mongolian Groom in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita. It was his third second at Santa Anita this year in three starts. Smith, who had ridden McKinzie in all 13 of his races, was taken off in favor of Joel Rosario, who will ride McKinzie in the Classic.
“That’s why I did the jockey switch, because he hadn’t won [at Santa Anita this year],” Baffert said. “I thought I had to do something different.”
It’s not expected to be a runaway for McKinzie on Saturday. Vino Rosso, who won the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, and Code of Honor, winner of the Travers Stakes at Saratoga, are both 4-1 on the morning line. There is a mare, Elate, who has finished first twice and second twice in her last four races at 6-1. Higher Power, who won the Pacific Classic at Del Mar by 5 ¼ lengths, is also 6-1. And Preakness winner War of Will is 20-1.
“I just want the horse to show up,” Baffert said. “If he shows up and gets outrun, he gets outrun. There’s a lot on the line. There are championships on the line. There is Horse of the Year on the line. That’s the beauty of the Breeders’ Cup. They are going to give out a lot of championships this weekend. I just hope that some of mine are on that list.”
McKinzie is scheduled to come back as a 5-year-old, unusual for horse of his ability. Baffert is mulling over the idea of sending him to the Middle East for the inaugural $20-million Saudi Cup and the $12-million Dubai World Cup.
No doubt, Brad McKinzie’s head would be spinning if he ever knew a horse named after him might one day be running in a $20-million race.