This time of year, one thing that can always be counted on is trainer Bob Baffert having some horses that are creating substantial Kentucky Derby buzz.
This year, he’s so loaded he has to run two of his undefeated 3-year-olds against each other Saturday in the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes. And those are just two of the six prospects he has on the Derby trail.
The San Felipe is the most intriguing of the five stakes races at Santa Anita on Saturday. In days past, the headliner would have been the Grade 1 $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap, but the mega-purse races in the Middle East have watered down the Big ‘Cap from its status as one of the country’s premier races to a nice stakes race for older horses.
Interest in horse racing is always centered around the Kentucky Derby, and the winner of the San Felipe will have enough points to qualify for the race.
“The pressure is on, they need to run one-two,” Baffert said about Authentic and Thousand Words. “Now it’s about points. Before, it used to be graded stakes going long. Now they run for more money everywhere else but here. That makes it tough. I wish they did it like Breeders’ Cup, where they take the first 14 on points and the rest by committee.”
Authentic is the 6-5 morning-line favorite, having won the Grade 3 Sham Stakes, his second race, by 7¾ lengths. But it wasn’t a flawless race as he kept ducking in and out and moving his head about down the stretch.
“Authentic needs to run his race and he can’t be doing that zigzagging,” Baffert said. “I think it was the noise when he came around [the far turn]. He heard and he looked. I didn’t want to put blinkers on him. He’s never done it in the morning, so now he has earplugs.”
Thousand Words is the 9-5 second choice, having won all three of his races, including the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Futurity and Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes. The winning margins were a half-length, a neck and three-quarters of a length.
“Thousand Words was very workmanlike when he won,” Baffert said. “He’s never had a race where you go, ‘Wow.’ They come to him and he keeps going. But, I like him better in this race. We’ve brought him along in baby steps. He’s going to get some good horses to run at.”
Sometimes you can tell how good a horse is by interpreting the actions of others. Jockey Flavien Prat was the regular rider for Storm the Court, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Eclipse Award for best 2-year-old male. He was also the rider of Thousand Words. When both horses entered into the San Felipe, Prat chose to ride Thousand Words.
“It was going to be a decision we had to make now or down the road,” said Derek Lawson, Prat’s agent and the person who usually makes the decision on which horse to ride. “We had anticipated that Storm the Court was going to the Rebel [next week in Arkansas], in which case there wouldn’t have been a decision to make. When [Storm the Court] decided to stay here, we went with the undefeated Thousand Words.”
Prat won last year’s Kentucky Derby, his first, aboard Country House, who was elevated to first after the disqualification of Maximum Security.
Baffert has two other undefeated colts. Nadal, winner of two races including the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes, who will run next week in the Rebel Stakes. And then there is Charlatan, who won his only race by 5¾ lengths.
Charlatan is a late-developing colt, similar to Justify two years ago, when he won the Triple Crown.
Baffert also has Azul Coast, winner of two of three including the El Camino Real Derby, and Eight Rings, winner of two of four and the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes.
In the Santa Anita Handicap, the favorite at 6-5 is Gift Box, winner of last year’s race. If the lightly raced 7-year-old wins it will be the third Big ’Cap in a row for trainer John Sadler, who also won with Accelerate two years ago.
Santa Anita has an early post of 11:30 a.m. for the 12-race card.