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Baffert feeling pressure but holding strong hand for Derby

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is feeling the pressure now. The five-time Kentucky Derby winner finds himself with new favorite Game Winner since Omaha Beach was scratched with a breathing problem.

“Oh, boy, here we go,” the white-haired trainer said Thursday to a throng outside his Churchill Downs barn. “I think everybody is trying to jinx me. It’s still a very wide-open race.”

The Derby possibly could lose another horse, too.

Haikal, a 30-1 shot trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, is being treated for an abscess in his left front foot. The Gotham Stakes winner didn’t train Thursday and soaked in Epsom salts to reduce the accumulation of pus in his infected foot.

If Haikal can’t train again Friday, McLaughlin said he would be out of the race. The deadline to scratch is Friday morning.

No matter how much he tries to deflect the attention, Baffert holds a strong hand heading into Saturday’s race. Game Winner is the 9-2 early favorite, and his two other horses, Improbable and Roadster, are the co-second choices at 5-1.

A sixth victory would tie him for the most wins by a trainer in the Derby’s 145-year history.

“I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty favorite now,” he insisted.

Instead, he tried to sic the media on Jason Servis, who trains Maximum Security. The Florida Derby winner is a 10-1 shot.

“He should be the favorite,” Baffert said. “He’s a horse that nobody is talking about and that’s a horse that I’m worried about. He’s run faster than we have. Put the pressure on Jason, will you?”

Over at his barn, Servis empathized with trainer Richard Mandella and 78-year-old owner Rick Porter, their Derby hopes dashed a day earlier. But he was glad to see Mike Smith knocked out of the race. The 53-year-old Hall of Famer is a crafty rider who won a year ago with Justify.

“I was really happy about that, especially having him outside of me,” said Servis, alluding to Smith’s ability to have possibly prompted Maximum Security into a quicker than desirable early pace.

Baffert said he gave no thought to replacing Florent Geroux aboard Game Winner with Smith.

“I would never do that to the riders,” he said, having started in racing as a jockey.

Meanwhile, Omaha Beach was set to have surgery Thursday to fix an entrapped epiglottis that affects his breathing. The minor procedure, at nearby clinic Lexington, will require two to three weeks of recovery, enough time to knock the colt off the Triple Crown trail. He’s expected to race this summer.

“As bad as it felt yesterday, it would be a horrible feeling to have him not finish well and know that I was at fault for running him,” Mandella said. “So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is give it up and go to the next step.”

Prominent owner and breeder Arthur Hancock was among many who contacted Mandella to express sympathy. Hancock pointed out that the late training great Charlie Whittingham was 73 when he won his first and only Derby.

“So who I am to think I should be doing this now?” said Mandella, who is 68.

Baffert felt Mandella’s pain. In 2014, he had to scratch Hoppertunity because of a minor foot problem two days before the Derby.

“There’s nothing like coming to the Derby when you have a legitimate chance to win it and then all of a sudden the rug is just pulled out from under you,” Baffert said. “It’s a tough feeling.”

Certainly much tougher than saddling the top three wagering choices in the Derby.

Alluding to his 2012 heart attack in Dubai, Baffert assured onlookers he could handle the pressure.

“I got three stents and they’re good,” he said, patting his chest with both hands.

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.