After highs and lows in 2020, Bob Baffert sets his focus on Santa Anita
Horse racing finds itself behind the curve on a lot of issues. But one thing it does ahead of most is start the new year early.
Santa Anita hopes to wipe away everyone’s memory of 2020 as it opens its signature meeting at the Arcadia track on Saturday. For more than eight decades, Santa Anita has scheduled its opener around Christmastime. This will be the first time it has opened without fans and that’s not likely to change in the short term. Track officials are privately hoping to start allowing some fans in between March and the Kentucky Derby in May. But all that is contingent on the COVID-19 pandemic getting under control in the general population.
“Opening day means starting a whole new year,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. “That’s what Santa Anita means to me. It’s too bad we won’t have fans, but they’ll be watching. I mean Santa Anita has it all with the weather, the location and some of the best horses.”
Baffert has for several years been the face of racing nationwide with his identifiable white hair, constant availability to the media and bunches of quality horses.
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He also had a series of medication violations that smudged his reputation. Baffert said all were issues of contamination and he instituted new barn protocols and named a respected Kentucky veterinarian to oversee the procedures. One of his former stars, Arrogate, died at age 7 of a neurological issue. Then there was not being able to race part of the year because tracks closed during the pandemic.
“We had some unfortunate lows [this year], but the positives tests were contamination,” Baffert said. “I think back when Arrogate passed and that was just tough. You’ve just got to throw it all behind you, especially when you think what the world’s been through. I’ve never been one to focus on the bad.”
The other side of the coin for Baffert has been quite impressive. Authentic won the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Improbable won the Whitney Stakes, Maximum Security won the Pacific Classic and Mucho Gusto won the Pegasus World Cup. Mucho Gusto is the only horse returning this year as the others have been retired.
“It was actually one of my better years as we won 16 Grade 1s,” Baffert said. “They took one of those away, but we’re fighting that. I had a tremendous year, but you heard more about the negatives than the positives.”
Reversing that conversation for Baffert can start on Saturday as Charlatan and Mucho Gusto headline a very strong opening day at Santa Anita with six stakes races, three of them Grade 1.
Charlatan won one of the divisions of the Arkansas Derby, but was subsequently disqualified after a positive for lidocaine. Baffert said the horse inadvertently was exposed to the pain reliever through a patch his chief assistant Jimmy Barnes was wearing while saddling the horse and had the medication on his hands when touching the horse’s tongue tie. The case is on appeal.
The promising 3-year-old then suffered an ankle injury that has sidelined him since May. Charlatan has crossed the finish line first in all three of his races. His return will come Saturday in the very competitive Grade 1 $300,000 Malibu Stakes for horses going seven furlongs. Normally a horse with those credentials would be a rock-solid favorite, but Charlatan is 9-5 behind Nashville, at 6-5, who has also impressed in three undefeated races in Kentucky and New York.
Charlatan “looks good and he’s training well,” Baffert said. “He’s healthy, but 7/8ths [of a mile] off a layoff is pretty demanding. And a horse like Nashville is freaky fast. [Charlatan’s] going to have to dig down.”
Mucho Gusto is the 2-1 favorite in the Grade 2 $200,000 San Antonio Stakes for horses running 1 1/16 miles. He has been off since finishing fourth in the $20-million Saudi Cup in February.
The Horseracing Safety and Integrity Act was passed by Congress as part of a push to standardize medical and safety procedures within the sport.
“It going to be a tough race for him,” Baffert said. “We’re treating this as a prep to the Saudi Cup. [So, we may skip the Pegasus because] it’s hard to do back-to-back this close together. We wanted to give him a race here. I don’t have him as ready as Charlatan, who is pretty ready.”
The other Grade 1s on Saturday’s card are the $300,000 La Brea for 3-year-old fillies going seven furlongs and the $300,000 American Oaks for 3-year-old fillies going 1 1/4 miles on the turf.
Saturday will mark the debut of the track’s new turf chute that can handle races up to 6 1/2 furlongs. Sprint races on the historic downhill course were suspended last spring in the midst of the horse fatality crisis. At the center of the issue is a dirt crossover at the end of the hill. The new turf chute also has a dirt crossover, but it is early in the race and the horses have been running on level ground.
Santa Anita has not ruled out using the downhill course for select sprint races, but no final decision has been made.
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