No more Triple talk for Baffert, Espinoza after 2016 Derby

Leave a comment

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The American Pharoah hangover is over for Bob Baffert, Victor Espinoza and Ahmed Zayat — and maybe everyone else.

With Nyquist winning the Kentucky Derby on Saturday and heading to the Preakness in two weeks with an unbeaten record, Triple Crown chatter now turns to racing’s newest star.

Baffert’s Derby hopes on Saturday rested with Mor Spirit. But the Santa Anita Derby runner-up was never in contention and finished 10th under jockey Gary Stevens.

Espinoza, meanwhile, was bidding to become the first rider to win three consecutive Derbys. He was a late replacement aboard Whitmore, who was in fifth place with about a half mile to go in the 1 1/4-maile race but faded and finished 19th in the 20-horse field at Churchill Downs.

Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah, did not have a horse in the Derby, and was home in New Jersey. He was impressed with Nyquist, and would like nothing more than to see the colt join the Triple Crown club.

“What a horse. Awesome,” Zayat said Saturday night. “So proud of team O’Neill and many congrats to my friends the Reddams. Let’s have another Triple Crown back to back. Wouldn’t that be special.”

Espinoza, a winner of five of the past six Triple Crown races heading into Derby, said “I had a great trip around the first turn, but it felt like he was just spinning his wheels.”

The jockey won the Derby and Preakness aboard California Chrome in 2014, and then was along for the magic ride on American Pharoah. This time, it was no go.

“I felt like he was uncomfortable the entire race. He never picked up the bridle,” Espinoza said. “It’s just how it goes sometimes. Sometimes they like the track and sometimes they’re picky. He’s one of those. It was a great, great race. The winner, I knew he was the one to beat and he got the perfect trip.”

Baffert tried to low-key his Derby week, but really couldn’t. He made appearances and signed autographs in the mornings on the backstretch and hoped Mor Spirit might come up with a big race.

“He came away from there OK, and he got a good spot going into the first turn,” Baffert said. “Then it just didn’t happen from there. He didn’t engage. He just didn’t have anything to fire for the finish.”

Wood Memorial boosts purse to attract top horses

Getty Images
Leave a comment

NEW YORK — The Wood Memorial purse could increase to $1 million as part of a bonus created to entice the top 3-year-olds to run in the Kentucky Derby prep on April 7.

New York Racing Association officials said Saturday that the presence of any horse in the field with a previous Grade 1 or Group 1 victory would increase the purse from $750,000 to $1 million if the qualifying horse starts. In that case, the winner would receive $590,000, the runner-up would earn $190,000 and third would be worth $90,000.

The Wood is run at 1 1/8 miles at Aqueduct. The race is part of the Road to the Kentucky Derby prep series that awards 100 points to the winner, 40 to second, 20 to third and 10 to fourth. The top 20 horses on the leaderboard earn starting spots in the Derby on May 5.

Jack Van Berg dies at 81

AP Photo
Leave a comment

Jack Van Berg, a Hall of Fame trainer who oversaw Alysheba to victories in the 1987 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, died Wednesday. He was 81.

He died in a Little Rock, Arkansas, hospital, according to a spokeswoman for Oaklawn Park, where Van Berg had relocated his training base after leaving Southern California in 2013. No cause was given.

Van Berg ranks fourth all-time among trainers in North America, with 6,523 victories from 41,164 starts, according to Equibase. He had career purse earnings of $85,925,482.

In the Derby, Alysheba and jockey Chris McCarron were nearly knocked down at the top of the stretch by Bet Twice. Alysheba recovered and won despite having just one career victory before the Run for the Roses. Alysheba won the Preakness to set up a try for the Triple Crown but finished fourth in the Belmont.

As a 4-year-old, Alysheba won the 1988 Breeders’ Cup Classic and went on to earn the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Van Berg saddled Gate Dancer to victory in the 1984 Preakness. That same year, he earned the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Trainer.

Van Berg was elected to the National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame in 1985. His father, trainer Marion Van Berg, already was there, having entered in 1970.

From 1959-77, Van Berg was the leading trainer at Ak-Sar-Ben racetrack in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1976, he won a record 496 races and was the nation’s leading trainer, with $2,976,196 in purse earnings.

In 1987, Van Berg became the first trainer to win 5,000 races when he saddle Art’s Chandelle to victory at Arlington Park outside Chicago.

He trained in Southern California for 41 years until moving to Oaklawn in Hot Springs, Arkansas, after Hollywood Park closed in December 2013. Van Berg blamed the cities of Inglewood and Los Angeles and the state of California for the track’s closure.

“I just think it’s a pathetic thing,” he said at the time. “It’s ridiculous to let something like this that so many people love and thrive on close. They did everything they could to kill racing. I’ve had enough. I don’t like California racing anymore. I don’t like the way they run it and what they do.”

Van Berg mentored Hall of Famer Bill Mott, who began as an assistant to him.

Born June 7, 1936, in Columbus, Nebraska, John Charles Van Berg began training for his father in the 1960s. The elder Van Berg trained nearly 1,500 winners but was more successful as an owner, winning 4,691 races and $13,936,965. He was the first inductee of the Nebraska Racing Hall of Fame, and his son followed him.