Pletcher’s longshots can’t be ignored in Belmont Stakes

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NEW YORK (AP) Trainer Todd Pletcher, always dangerous in the Belmont Stakes, sends out a pair of long shots Saturday in the final leg of the Triple Crown.

The focus of attention will fall on two other horses – Tacitus, the 9-5 favorite, and War of Will, the Preakness winner and the close second choice at 2-1.

Bettors who ignore Pletcher do so at their peril.

Pletcher’s duo this year includes Spinoff, 15-1 after finishing 18th in the Kentucky Derby, and the lightly-raced Intrepid Heart at 10-1.

Pletcher owns three Belmont wins: the filly Rags to Riches (2007), Palace Malice (2013) and Tapwrit (2017).

None were favored in the wagering, ranging in price from 4-1 on Rags to Riches up to 13-1 for Palace Malice’s upset.

Even when he doesn’t win, Pletcher often lands a piece of the action. Since sending out his first Belmont runner in 2000, Pletcher has been second five times and three times finished third in the 1+ mile race.

Belmont Park is Pletcher’s base of operation, and he targets this race.

Like most trainers who develop 3-year-olds, Pletcher takes aim first at the Kentucky Derby. When that doesn’t pan out, Pletcher immediately turns his attention to the Belmont.

“It’s a race we really cherish,” Pletcher said. “It’s home for us. I think one of the advantages is most of our horses have trained five weeks at Belmont after the Derby. It helps, and it’s a race we really enjoy.”

Pletcher’s best Belmont hope this time probably rests with Intrepid Heart, running for only the fourth time. The gray colt stumbled at the start of his most recent outing, the Peter Pan Stakes at Belmont, and ran third as the even-money favorite in his first career loss.

“We were disappointed in the outcome of the race for sure because going in he had a big chance to win,” Pletcher said.

He will make an equipment change, adding blinkers to narrow Intrepid Heart’s field of vision. Blinkers often help improve focus by screening distractions.

Intrepid Heart should be acclimated, having worn the blinkers in his last two workouts.

As for Spinoff, Pletcher blames the poor effort on the sloppy track on Derby Day.

“The horse has trained, to me, consistently with some of the horses we’ve run in the Belmont over the years that have performed well,” Pletcher said. “I’m hoping he catches a fast track and gets to prove how good he is, or is not.”

In the end, it comes to down to hoping the home-field advantage again comes into play for the seven-time Eclipse Award winner as Outstanding Trainer.

“I think you can make that argument from the standpoint of training on a mile and a half track,” Pletcher said. “Getting accustomed to that can be helpful.”

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.

Baffert: 2-year Churchill Downs suspension hurt reputation

bob baffert
Sam Upshaw Jr./USA TODAY NETWORK
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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Churchill Downs never gave advance notice nor reached out to explain its two-year suspension, Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said in federal court, and reiterated that the penalty has caused irreparable harm to his business and reputation.

Baffert has sued the historic track and is seeking a temporary injunction to stop his suspension following a failed drug test by the now-deceased Medina Spirit after the colt came in first in the 2021 Kentucky Derby.

The suspension for a series of failed tests by his horses runs through the end of the upcoming spring meet and could exclude Baffert from the Derby for a second consecutive spring.

Almost a year ago, Kentucky racing officials disqualified Medina Spirit and suspended Baffert for 90 days for those failed tests. Churchill Downs elevated Derby runner-up Mandaloun to winner.

“They’ve hurt my reputation,” Baffert said during nearly two hours of testimony in U.S. District Court. “My horses should’ve made much more money. I didn’t run for 90 days, and I had to let people go.”

Churchill Downs wants the case dismissed, citing nine failed tests by Baffert-trained horses as justification for disciplining horse racing’s most visible figure. The list of violators includes 2020 Kentucky Oaks third-place finisher Gamine, who was ultimately disqualified.

Medina Spirit failed his test for having in his system the corticosteroid betamethasone, which Baffert and attorney Clark Brewster have argued came from an ointment rather than an injection.

Track president Mike Anderson said the decision by Churchill Downs CEO Bill Carstanjen stemmed from Baffert’s “refusal to take responsibility for repeat violations” during a news conference at his backside barn after Medina Spirit’s failed test was revealed.

“We wanted to make a statement that this was a consequence of not doing the right thing,” Anderson said.

Attorneys Matt Benjamin and Christine Demana, who are representing Churchill Downs, also disputed Baffert’s contention that business has suffered by noting his latest crop of promising 3-year-old colts on this year’s Derby trail.

One of them, Arabian Knight, won last week’s Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn by 5+ lengths to give Baffert his record sixth win in the race. The horse is ineligible to earn Kentucky Derby qualifying points as the winner because of Baffert’s suspension.

A slide presented also showed that Baffert horses made 477 starts from May 10, 2021, through December 2022 and won marquee races such as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (Corniche, the Eclipse winner) along with Grade 1 wins in the Pennsylvania Derby and Malibu Stakes (Taiba).

Friday’s 3 1/2-hour hearing followed four hours of testimony on Thursday. District Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings gave no indication when she would rule. But Brewster said he expects a decision “within several days.”

Baffert testified that he had had a good relationship with Churchill Downs, though he noted that he was paying for his seats at the track and having to “grovel” to get them. He also insisted that he tried to be a good ambassador for horse racing, especially after American Pharoah and Justify won the Triple Crown in 2015 and 2018, respectively.

“I think today was great because I finally got to tell my story in a nonbiased atmosphere,” he said. “I hope for the best, and hopefully we’ll be here.”