It’s way too early to make any conclusions about this year’s Kentucky Derby, but based on four major prep races Saturday, it looks as if the 150th Run for the Roses might turn out to be more like an NFL Pro Bowl as far as showcasing the top competition. Can you say that the Preakness Stakes might be the best Triple Crown race?
The bizarre nature of this year’s Triple Crown season took form in July when Churchill Downs added a third year to trainer Bob Baffert’s two-year ban because it believed that he didn’t show enough contrition despite having not a hint of a violation in those two years. The ban was because of Medina Spirit’s positive test for a legal medication banned on race day. Baffert has contended that the colt was administered betamethasone in a topical ointment for a rash rather than through an injection into the joint.
Baffert filed many lawsuits, losing most before recently pulling any appeals in an attempt to show Churchill Downs that he was waving the white flag. Churchill Downs did not accept the gesture and in the process lost the public relations battle.
Now, with three months to go, the horse that is inarguably the best in the country is not eligible for the Kentucky Derby because of Churchill’s ban of Baffert. Some media outlets are saying this year’s Derby should be relabeled 149½ or 150*.
It all became clear when Nysos, a Baffert trainee undefeated in three starts, devastated a field of nine in winning Saturday’s $200,000 Grade 3 Robert B. Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita by 7½ lengths. Meanwhile, at Gulfstream Park in South Florida, Fierceness, winner of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, finished a disappointing third.
The last two years, Baffert has moved his best 3-year-olds mostly to his former trainer Tim Yakteen, so they would be eligible for the Kentucky Derby. This year, in a form of solidarity, none of the owners that represented the 18 Baffert horses nominated for the Triple Crown elected to move their horses.
Baffert had three horses entered in Saturday’s Lewis Stakes, which scratched down to two when Coach Prime was pulled.
“He stumbled a bit leaving there, but he was in a good spot,” Baffert told Santa Anita publicity about Nysos. “I knew it was going to be a hot pace. My other horse (Wine Me Up) really hung in there well. [Jockey Favien] Prat rode him with a lot of confidence, he knows the horse well. I love the fact that he has speed and he proved he can do two turns. He has a great mind. He is a really good colt. You can just sit there and push the button at any time. It makes it so much easier for the riders, but I still get a little nervous.
“I liked the way my other horse was running [on the lead] because I thought he was going to run a big race today. Deep down inside I thought if [Nysos] is a good horse he’s going to get it done, and he did.”
Nysos, the heavy favorite, paid a mere $2.20 to win on a $2 bet. Wine Me Up was second, followed by Scatify, McVay, Moonlit Sonata, Better Than Gold and Ace of Clubs. Since the Baffert horses were not allowed the get points, 30 points — 20 for first, 10 for second — were vacated.
Fierceness, trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by Mike Repole, was on the top of all the Kentucky Derby polls but failed to deliver Saturday. He was perfectly rated and was in a position entering the stretch to win it all. But Hades ($20.40 to win), with Paco Lopez aboard, wasn’t done amid very slow fractions and surged in front as Fierceness couldn’t keep up.
Domestic Product was second, followed by Fierceness, Inveigled, Dancing Groom, Otello and Sea Streak.
“He didn’t get off to a very good start,” Pletcher told Gulfstream publicity of Fierceness. “The inside horse bumped him pretty good and then he got sandwiched and kind of had to shove him into the race and try to get the position we wanted, which we eventually did. But, he had to overcome a pretty rough start to get there.”
The original plan was for Fierceness to miss the Fountain of Youth, the next major prep at Gulfstream, and wait for the Florida Derby.
In another 20-point-to-the-winner Kentucky Derby preps, Mystik Dan ($24.80) won the $800,000 Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn. Wynstock, trained by Baffert and owned by Los Alamitos owner Dr. Ed Allred and executive Jack Liebau, finished last in the 11-horse field.
In New York, Uncle Henry rallied in the last 50 yards to Pass El Grande O at the wire to win the $250,000 Withers Stakes at Aqueduct, also gaining 20 Derby qualifying points.