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143rd Kentucky Derby is as wide open as ever

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Bob Baffert is sitting out the Kentucky Derby, and not by choice.

Having the four-time Derby-winning trainer without at least one horse in the race for just the second time in 11 years indicates what an unpredictable winter it’s been leading to the start of the Triple Crown.

Baffert’s best horse, Mastery, got hurt after crossing the finish line first in the San Felipe Stakes. None of his other 3-year-olds developed into Derby material. Instead, he’ll aim for the $1 million Kentucky Oaks for fillies on Derby eve.

This year’s road to the 143rd Derby derailed other contenders because of injuries, including now-retired Not This Time, Klimt and Syndergaard.

“The amazing thing of getting a horse to the Derby is keeping him injury free,” said Doug O’Neill, who trained last year’s winner Nyquist.

For the first time in four years, the winner likely won’t be from California.

“It’s as wide open as we’ve seen in a long time. You’re going to have some big odds on whoever the favorite is,” said Dale Romans, who trains Gotham Stakes winner J Boys Echo. “It could be any horse this race. I don’t think this really means it’s a bad group of horses, I think it’s an even group of horses.”

There’s Classic Empire, who boasts an impressive resume as last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner and champion 2-year-old. He won the Arkansas Derby and finished third in the Holy Bull Stakes, his only two starts this year.

His path to Churchill Downs hasn’t been smooth, however. He had a foot abscess and a back issue that prevented him from working out for a while. Twice in recent months, Classic Empire refused to train.

“I’ve never once counted him out. I know a lot of people have,” trainer Mark Casse said. “I feel that ability wise, he is the most talented horse out there right now.”

Casse also trains State of Honor, the Florida Derby runner-up.

Todd Pletcher has four horses set to run May 6 in the 1 \-mile race, with Florida Derby winner Always Dreaming as his leading contender.

Of course, big numbers are nothing new for the New York-based trainer.

He had five runners in 2013 and 2007. Yet for his 45 career starters, Pletcher has never had a Derby favorite. That could change this year with Always Dreaming, who had the fastest time among 35 horses going 5 furlongs at Churchill Downs on Friday.

“He’s got the right style to be really tough,” O’Neill said.

Pletcher’s lone victory came in 2010 with Super Saver. He is set to surpass mentor D. Wayne Lukas (48) for most career starters.

“Our Derby record is not as good as we’d like it to be,” he said. “We’ve had some horses overachieve on their way to getting there and in some cases, underachieve in the race itself.”

Besides Always Dreaming, Pletcher’s other horses are: Battallion Runner, Patch and Tapwrit. He almost had five again, but Malagacy isn’t expected to run.

There’s Girvin, the Louisiana Derby winner in a race against time to mend a crack in his right front hoof. His 32-year-old trainer Joe Sharp, the husband of retired jockey Rosie Napravnik, is doing everything he can to heal the colt in time to saddle his first Derby starter. Girvin had a similar crack earlier in the year and responded quickly to treatment.

“I’m not saying that I think I’m going to win the Derby, but I definitely wouldn’t trade places with anybody,” Sharp said. “He’s always consistent and he’s got the kind of running style that wins big races.”

As usual, a full field of 20 is expected. The final lineup won’t be known until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions assigned.

Graham Motion, who trained 2011 Derby winner Animal Kingdom, is back with Irish War Cry, the Wood Memorial winner. His sire is Curlin, a two-time Horse of the Year who finished third in the 2007 Derby.

Still looking for his first Derby win is Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Hence and Untrapped. The trainer has two starters waiting in the wings, too. Lookin At Lee would be the next horse into the race if there are any defections, while Local Hero is No. 24 in the point standings.

Olympic skier Bode Miller recently bought into his first Derby starter, Fast and Accurate, winner of the Spiral Stakes. For years, Miller has been a guest of his pal Baffert during Derby week, but now he’s got some skin in the race.

For the fifth straight year, the field is determined by points from designated prep races. The top 20 earn a spot in the starting gate.

Code of Honor wins Travers Stakes

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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. (AP) Trainer Shug McGaughey walked into Saratoga Race Course stoked for the 150th running of the Travers Stakes. Code of Honor validated those feelings.

Code of Honor won a stretch duel with Tacitus and Mucho Gusto, holding off hard-luck Tacitus by three lengths to win the $1.25 million Travers Stakes on Saturday.

“I’ve been really excited all week, I’ve been excited about the way the horse was doing,” McGaughey said after his fourth win in the race and first in 21 years. “When he worked here on Monday, it was something to see. I wasn’t nervous. I was ready to get it on. Today, he put it all together.”

With jockey John Velazquez aboard, the chestnut son of Noble Mission covered the 1\ miles in 2 minutes, 1.05 seconds and paid $10.80, $5.20 and $3.80 on a sunny day with temperatures in the mid-70s. The colt now has four wins, two seconds and a third in eight starts and nearly $2 million in earnings.

Tacitus paid $3.70 and $2.80, and Mucho Gusto returned $3.80.

Code of Honor won the Grade 2 Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream in February and was third in the Grade 1 Florida Derby to set up a strong run in the Kentucky Derby, where he finished third before being moved to second when winner Maximum Security was disqualified for interference.

“I never had any doubts about distance as a problem, just him putting his mind to running,” Velazquez said. “When I got him out in the clear, he responded right away.”

Code of Honor was the second choice in the Travers at 4-1 after an impressive victory in the Dwyer at Belmont Park in his previous start in early July. Belmont Stakes runner-up Tacitus was the 5-2 morning line favorite.

Tacitus, wearing blinkers for the first time, had the lead in the back stretch before Mucho Gusto moved alongside at the half-mile pole and edged in front. At the top of the stretch they were challenged by Code of Honor, Owendale and Tax before Code of Honor slid past on the outside for the win.

Endorsed was fourth, followed by Owendale in fifth.

Tacitus trainer Bill Mott was looking for a breakout race for his gray colt, which stumbled out of the gate and nearly fell in finishing second to Tax in the Jim Dandy Stakes in July, a traditional prep race at Saratoga for the Travers. Instead, he finished second for the third straight time.

“Our horse was just there,” Mott said. “I had one eye on the winner and one eye on mine. It looked like there was a good chance we were going to outduel Mucho Gusto, but the winner, he rolled by pretty fast.”

The race was delayed for about five minutes while crews took down signs on the inner turf course after jockeys raised concerns the billboards might distract the horses.

“That was one thing I didn’t have to worry about,” McGaughey said with a chuckle.

McGaughey’s other wins in the Travers came with Coronado’s Quest in 1998, Rhythm in 1990, and Easy Goer in 1989. He said he wasn’t sure where Code of Honor would race next, as the Pennsylvania Derby looms in a month.

The 13-race card also featured five other Grade 1 stakes: Favored Mitole won the 40th running of the $600,000 Forego, taking the lead from pace-setting Promises Fulfilled and pulling away down the stretch from Firenze Fire by 3 + lengths for his fifth win in six starts this year and ninth overall in 12 starts for trainer Steve Asmussen; Come Dancing rallied from a slow start and powered to the front from the outside entering the stretch and captured the 41st running of the $500,000 Ballerina by 3 + lengths over Dawn the Destroyer; Mind Control, with Velazquez aboard, took the 35th running of the $500,000 Allen Jerkens, winning a stirring duel by a nose over Hog Creek Hustle and favored Shancelot, who was overtaken at the wire after gaining a two-length lead down the stretch; Midnight Bisou used a late charge to edge Elate by a nose at the wire and win the 72nd running of the $700,000 Personal Ensign; and Annals of Time, trained by Chad Brown, barely held off Sadler’s Joy to take the 45th running of the $850,000 Sword Dancer, a 1 +-mile test on the turf.

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Higher Power wins $1M Pacific Classic

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DEL MAR, Calif. — With his top two horses elsewhere, John Sadler took a chance with a couple others in his barn.

Higher Power paid off.

The 4-year-old colt took command turning into the stretch and won the $1 million Pacific Classic by 5 1/4 lengths at Del Mar on Saturday, making Sadler the first trainer to win the Grade 1 race in consecutive years with different horses.

“The second time is just as sweet,” Sadler said.

In 2018, Accelerate ended Sadler’s 0-for-11 skid with a record 12 1/2-length victory in the West’s biggest race of the summer. Owner-brothers Kosta and Pete Hronis joined Sadler with consecutive victories.

“Winning it back to back is a tribute to John Sadler,” Kosta Hronis said.

Ridden by Flavien Prat, Higher Power ran 1 1/4 miles in 2:02.43 at the seaside track north of San Diego. Sent off at 9-1 odds, the colt paid $21.20, $9.40 and $7.40.

“When we entered the backside he really grabbed the bit and I was travelling really well,” Prat said. “Once the leader fell apart he really jumped into the bridle and did everything on his own, so I thought that was the right move.”

Draft Pick returned $17.40 and $10 at 13-1 odds. Mongolian Groom was another neck back in third and paid $7.20 to show at 18-1 odds.

Higher Power earned an automatic berth in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita this fall.

Seeking the Soul, the 2-1 favorite, finished seventh.

“He didn’t try at all,” jockey John Velazquez said. “No effort. I don’t get it.”

Sadler’s top two handicap horses, Gift Box and Catalina Cruiser, weren’t in the picture. Gift Box won’t run again until this fall and Catalina Cruiser is tabbed to run next in a sprint race.

Not seeing a dominant horse in the race, Sadler entered Higher Power. The colt responded with the first stakes win of his career.

“It developed pretty much the way we thought,” he said. “We thought there would be some speed on the inside and the plan was to stalk. It came out the way we thought it would.”

Sadler’s other entry, Campaign, finished fifth.

The victory, worth $600,000, increased Higher Power’s career earnings to $800,648, with five wins in 13 starts.

Sadler didn’t get Higher Power in his barn until spring. The colt was with another trainer for the first six starts of his career and then transferred to a different trainer.

In other stakes:

– Acclimate won the $250,000 Del Mar Handicap by a length under Florent Geroux. The 5-year-old brown gelding earned an automatic berth in the BC Turf.

Trained by Phil D’Amato, Acclimate ran 1 3/8 miles on turf in 2:12.71 and paid $16.60 to win at 7-1 odds.

– Cambier Parc shipped in from New York and won the $300,000 Del Mar Oaks by 1 1/4 lengths for trainer Chad Brown.

Ridden by Velazquez, the 3-year-old filly ran 1 1/8 miles on turf in 1:46.75. She paid $4.40 as the 6-5 favorite.

– Fighting Mad cruised to an eight-length victory in the $100,000 Torrey Pines Stakes.

Ridden by Joe Talamo, the 3-year-old filly ran one mile in 1:38.61. Fighting Mad paid $6.60 as the 2-1 favorite trained by Bob Baffert. She’s owned by Gary and Mary West, owners of Maximum Security, disqualified after finishing first in the Kentucky Derby.

– Mr Vargas won the $100,000 Green Flash Handicap by 2 1/4 lengths.

The 5-year-old gelding ran five furlongs on turf in 56.15 seconds under Talamo. Mr Vargas paid $8.40 to win for trainer Brian Koriner.