For Kentucky Derby horses, sunrise is when the work begins

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Some horses beat the sunrise over the backside at Churchill Downs for their workouts. Other colts await the first light and warmth of day before preparing for Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, the biggest race of their lives.

They go about their business amid a peaceful quiet that makes the historic track so special every spring.

Workouts have varied this week from walking around the barns to light jogging or graceful gallops beneath the famed Twin Spires on the frontstretch. Full-speed training is brief but closely watched from key spots around Churchill to gauge the horse’s readiness for the 145th Derby.

Twenty horses are expected to go off in Saturday’s running over 1 1/4 mile in the first leg of racing’s Triple Crown. This year’s group must follow the tough act set by Justify, whose 2 1/2-length victory here last May set the stage for him becoming racing’s 13th Triple Crown winner and second in four years.

Game Winner has become the 9-2 new favorite after Omaha Beach was scratched Wednesday evening with a breathing problem. Bodexpress has taken the open spot after being on the outside looking in.

Weather has been favorable this week with the horses, workers and spectators enjoying the early-morning chill under clear skies.

Roosters crow as the thoroughbreds slowly exit their stalls and head toward the dirt. Coaxing is needed to get some into their workouts, but they soon hit stride during the short 15-minute training window for Derby and Kentucky Oaks contenders.

Just as they’re getting warmed up, it’s all over. Much like those tense two minutes they’ll experience on Saturday.

From there it’s back to the barn to cool down and get bathed before a group of admirers armed with camera phones aiming to get the good side of a colt who might end the week draped in a garland of roses.

Some horses drink in the attention as warm water evaporates from their massive physiques. Others are a little feisty and look ready to kick, a hazard their handlers carefully try to avoid by staying in front of those powerful hind legs.

Trainers ultimately provide a calming sight as the suppliers of peppermints or carrots stuffed in their pockets. With the hard work done for the day, the horses look forward to feed and rest as noise from nearby races occasionally breaks the quiet.

Just another day at Churchill Downs.

369 horses nominated to compete in Triple Crown series

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – A total of 369 3-year-olds were made eligible to compete in this year’s Triple Crown series during the early nomination period.

Each of the horses was nominated through a $600 payment to compete in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont stakes. The Triple Crown opens May 6 with the Derby.

The number of nominated horses increased by 57 from last year’s total of 312. They include a record 37 horses based in Japan.

Among the notable horses is Forte, last year’s 2-year-old champion trained by Todd Pletcher.

Also among the predominantly male horses nominated was a filly named Hoosier Philly.

Brad Cox led all trainers with 38 horses nominated to the series. Pletcher was second with 36 horses, followed by Steve Asmussen and Ken McPeek with 13 each. Chad Brown and Hideyuki Mori had 12 each.

Others nominated include Arabian Knight, Cave Rock and Newgate, all trained by Bob Baffert. He is currently banned by Churchill Downs Inc. through this year’s Derby, although Baffert is challenging his two-year punishment in federal court.

For the Derby, horses under the care of any suspended trainer may be transferred to another trainer and become eligible to earn Derby qualifying points as long as the transfer is done by Feb. 28.

Last year, Baffert transferred two horses to another trainer and both ran in the Derby, although neither was highly placed.

Horses that were not nominated to the Triple Crown series by the early deadline of Jan. 28 can make a late payment of $6,000 through March 27 to become eligible.

Newgate wins Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Baffert runs 1-2-3-4

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Newgate won the $200,000 Robert B. Lewis Stakes by a neck, with Bob Baffert as the trainer of all four horses in the Kentucky Derby prep race at Santa Anita.

Ridden by Frankie Dettori, Newgate ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.11 and paid $4 and $2.60 as the even-money favorite. There was no show wagering because of the field size.

Hard to Figure returned $5.20 at 12-1 odds. Worcester was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third. Arabian Lion was fourth.

“So much improvement in all these horses,” Baffert said. “I was actually nervous before the race, worried that something weird might happen, but I can relax now.”

The Lewis was a Kentucky Derby prep race, but no points were awarded because Baffert has been banned for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The Hall of Fame trainer was in Louisville to testify in federal court as he seeks a temporary injunction to end the suspension, which runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet. It was meted out following a failed drug test by Medina Spirit after the colt finished first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

Newgate earned his first graded stakes victory. The colt was second, beaten by a neck in the Sham Stakes last month in his previous start.

“Frankie Dettori has been teaching him how to just sit back, relax and come with a punch and that’s what he did today,” Baffert said.

The victory, worth $120,000, increased Newgate’s career earnings to $241,975, with two wins in six starts.