Bob Baffert makes history as horse racing deals with spike in thoroughbred deaths

Defunded, with Juan Hernandez aboard, wins the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita on Sunday.
Defunded, with Juan Hernandez aboard, wins the Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita on Sunday. The victory gave trainer Bob Baffert a record ninth Gold Cup win.
(Benoit Photo via the Associated Press)

As horse racing wades through its most notable five-week period of the year, there is one name that, as usual, dominates the conversation, that of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

Even though Monday’s $400,000 Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita wasn’t part of horse racing’s 3-year-old Triple Crown series, the spotlight shined on Baffert as his 5-year-old gelding Defunded won his second Grade 1 race of his career in the last big race of the marathon Santa Anita winter-spring season, which ends June 18.

It gave Baffert a record ninth win in the 85-year history of the race. The first winner was Seabiscuit in 1938.

Defunded, who has won seven of 17 lifetime races, went to the lead and was never really challenged, winning by one length as the favorite ($3.20 to win).


Baffert also had Country Grammer, second in the Saudi Cup, in the race but he finished fourth in the six-horse field.

The horse death toll at Churchill Downs grew to 12 in the last month when Kimberley Dream, a 7-year-old mare, died on the track in the first race Saturday.

May 27, 2023

“I would have liked to see Country Grammer second and run 1-2 but Defunded is a tough horse,” Baffert said. “He got the lead and he wasn’t going to let anybody pass him. He is just improving and getting better. I was happy to see him get a mile and a quarter.”

The sport has been under extra scrutiny during this Triple Crown season after the spike in horse deaths at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Horses died racing at Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday, raising the death count to 12 in a month. It surpassed any 30-day period during the fatality crisis at Santa Anita in 2019 that led to the track shutting down for a little more than three weeks to try and determine the cause.

The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Authority (HISA) has convened an emergency veterinary summit Tuesday in Kentucky and also dispatched longtime Southern California track superintendent Dennis Moore to examine the Churchill Downs track Wednesday.

Kentucky does not have a review panel that looks at past performances and other factors before running, such as California. Kimberley Dream, the 7-year-old mare who was euthanized Saturday, had lost her previous five races by a total of 130 lengths. Dr. Jeff Blea, equine medical director of the California Horse Racing Board, told The Times that a horse with that background would raise “significant concerns, [and] raise a red flag.” Blea was not specifically referring to Kimberley Dream, only what would raise alarms in California.

There was one fatality on the Preakness undercard when Havnameltdown broke down during a stakes race. It was a horse trained by Baffert. It muted the joy when the Baffert-trained National Treasure won the Preakness.


“There is nothing worse than coming back and the stall is empty,” Baffert said at the time.

In the past five years, Baffert has had a fatality rate lower than most California big-stable trainers.

The Stronach Group, which owns a number of tracks including Santa Anita Park, instituted a series of major safety reforms in 2019, many of which were adopted by the CHRB, and since then fatalities in the state have been reduced by 55%, a statistic that includes all deaths.

For comparison, during this racing year at Santa Anita, which began five months ago, the track has had five racing and training fatalities (same as 2022) and four sudden deaths (two in 2022). Churchill Downs has surpassed those numbers in a month.

But as Kentucky shied away from being associated with California in 2019, the attention in California this weekend was all about the racing with no mention of what was happening back east.

Hours after having to euthanize a horse following an on-track injury, trainer Bob Baffert earned his record eighth Preakness win with National Treasure.

May 20, 2023

The first Grade 1 of the day was the $400,000 Gamely Stakes for fillies and mares going 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Macadamia settled in the back in the early stages, moved up steadily on the back stretch and into the turn and then made her move as leader School Dance faded badly. Macadamia ($14.40) took the lead and held off rallying Quattroelle to win by a length.

“I have to give [jockey] Tiago [Pereira] a lot of credit for just getting on her every week, just breezing and developing her,” winning trainer Phil D’Amato said. “She just needed to acclimate to North America [after coming from Brazil]. She’s taken her time and now she’s a Grade 1 winner.”

The second Grade 1 was the $500,000 Shoemaker Mile, won by Exaulted ($8.20), who by virtue of winning the one-mile turf race gets an automatic qualification to the Breeders’ Cup (turf) Mile, which will be held at Santa Anita this year.

“I’m just so happy, so pleased to do it for [owner Lee Searing],” winning trainer Peter Eurton said. “This is the kind of race you want to win ever since you were a kid. I knew Bill [Shoemaker], we played golf with my father-in-law. Those two things together make it a great day.”

The attention will now shift to Belmont Park for the running of the last leg of the Triple Crown on June 10.