Bob Baffert’s Corniche wins American Pharoah Stakes but could get no points
It was a familiar scene, one that was repeating for the 10th time, as trainer Bob Baffert stood in the winner’s circle after prevailing in Santa Anita’s most important race for 2-year-olds Friday.
This time, it was Corniche leading the entire 1-1/16 miles and winning by a comfortable 3¼ lengths in the Grade 1 $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes. The colt gets a free pass to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar on Nov. 5, the first of two days of racing.
But what was very different was that Corniche was not scheduled to pick up the 10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points given to the winner. Churchill Downs, home to the Derby, suspended Baffert for two years after this year’s winner, Medina Spirit, was found to have a small amount of betamethasone in his system. The drug is a legal anti-inflammatory but not allowed on race day. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission still has not charged Baffert with anything.
In addition to the suspension, which likely will be challenged in court, Churchill Downs said any horse that runs for a banned trainer, of which Baffert is one of two, would not get the points. Instead, they will be vacated. Ten points is not enough to make or break a Kentucky Derby prospect in October of the previous year, but what it foreshadows could be an issue.
“We’re just going to let the process play itself out and not think about that now,” Baffert said. “The main thing is to keep them healthy and have them ready for the next dance. I just focus on these horses day in and day out.”
Bob Baffert has cultivated the story of a horse racing dynasty built from humble roots. He now faces scrutiny about short cuts he’s alleged to have taken.
It was no surprise to the bettors that Corniche would win so effortlessly under Mike Smith. He was a $1.5-million purchase for owner Peter Fluor.
“When we first bought him, we thought we had the best-looking colt we’ve had in five years,” said Fluor, who insisted on walking the horse from the track to the winner’s circle. “We had obviously high hopes, as anybody would. Then came his first race [a 4¼-length win at Del Mar], which was probably not better than I had hoped, but it was better than I ever thought it would be.”
Corniche paid $2.80, $2.20 and $2.10. Pappacap was second, followed by Oviatt Class, Rockefeller, Flying Drummer, Finneus and Joker Boy.
Racing returned to Santa Anita with opening day Friday.
Smith, who generally rides Baffert’s best horses, couldn’t have been more pleased with his performance.
“There is just so much upside to this horse,” Smith said. “That is what’s really exciting about him. When he broke his maiden as impressive as he did, he just gave me that feeling that we weren’t even close to his full potential, and he gave me that feeling [Friday].”
Baffert didn’t find any special significance in his dominance in this race.
“I just worry about what’s going on now,” not the past, Baffert said. “They are all different. If you asked me to name all of them, I probably couldn’t come up with them.”
Of the nine, only one went on to win the Kentucky Derby: American Pharoah, who won the Triple Crown.
As for the possibility of Corniche finding a way into the Kentucky Derby, that’s a question too complicated to try to answer.
Lieutenant Dan won the Eddie D Stakes in the first race held on the Santa Anita downhill course since it was closed after the death of Arms Runner in 2019.
There were two other Breeders’ Cup qualifying races Friday. One Timer won the $100,000 Speakeasy Stakes by three-quarters of a length for 2-year-olds going five furlongs on the turf. He paid $5.80, $4.00 and $2.40 for trainer Larry Rivelli and jockey E. Baird. The gelding, who gets a spot in the Juvenile Turf Sprint, normally runs in the Midwest circuit. It was his third win in three starts.
Ain’t Easy won the Grade 2 $200,000 Chandelier Stakes for 2-year-old fillies going 1-1/16 miles. She paid $9.00, $4.00 and $3.20 and qualified for the Juvenile Fillies. In her first race for trainer Phil D’Amato and jockey Joel Rosario, she won by 5¼ lengths at Del Mar. On Friday, the margin was 4¾ lengths.
There are four more Breeders’ Cup qualifying races this weekend, including the Grade 1 $300,000 Awesome Again on Saturday. The 5-2 favorite is Medina Spirit, running for the first time against older horses. The competition is expected to come from Tripoli (3-1) for trainer John Sadler and Express Train (4-1), winner of the San Diego Handicap for John Shirreffs. The winner of the race gets an entry in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
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