Baffert in spotlight for wrong reasons going into Preakness

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BALTIMORE (AP) Even though Bob Baffert isn’t at Pimlico Race Course this week, his shadow hangs over the Preakness, the Triple Crown and horse racing.

This should have been another celebration of Baffert, the face of the sport with two Triple Crown triumphs on his resume, coming off an upset win at the Kentucky Derby and looking for a record eighth Preakness victory. Instead, Derby winner Medina Spirit failing a postrace drug test for the steroid betamethasone has put Baffert and the sport in the spotlight for all the wrong reasons.

“The whole atmosphere here has changed,” rival trainer and friend D. Wayne Lukas said Wednesday. “The enthusiasm, the feel of excitement is not here. That’s what’s bad for the industry right there.”

Lukas tried to talk Baffert into traveling to Baltimore for the Preakness to saddle Medina Spirit and Concert Tour. Instead, Baffert’s horses are under the watchful eye of assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes and Maryland Racing Commission officials who set conditions for additional testing and monitoring for them to be allowed to run Saturday.

If three rounds of testing come back clean, Medina Spirit will likely be favored in the Preakness and, if successful, would be two-thirds of the way to Baffert’s third Triple Crown in six years – albeit with a giant asterisk.

“It certainly has altered the dynamic of the Preakness considerably,” NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said. “It’s gone from a warm and fuzzy, feel-good story about a tenacious $1,000 yearling who somehow defied the odds to win the Kentucky Derby into the depths of where no one in horse racing likes to see it go.”

Rather than Baffert holding court outside the stakes barn at Pimlico in his trademark sunglasses and chatting with Lukas, it was Barnes tersely ending a short interview session after “no comment” replies when asked about his boss’s mindset and whether Medina Spirit was still being treated for a skin condition, which caused the horse to be given an antifungal ointment that Baffert said Tuesday was a possible source of the steroid.

Plenty of others, however, want to talk about the medication violation, Baffert’s fifth in a little over a year.

Activist Marty Irby of Animal Wellness Action said, “Baffert should be extraordinarily alert to all substances that go into horses under his control” and recommended a zero-tolerance policy for drugging violations.

While this is not intentional doping with performance-enhancing drugs like the charges facing indicted trainers Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro, it’s another blotch on Baffert’s record that in a best-case scenario shows his barn doesn’t pay close enough attention to the medications being given to top-notch racehorses.

“The fact that he didn’t know and he didn’t mean for it to be in the horse, that doesn’t change for an instant the fact that it was in the horse,” said Dr. Mary Scollay, executive director of the Racing Medication & Testing Consortium. “The fact that he didn’t mean to break the rule doesn’t mean that he didn’t break a rule.”

Betamethasone, a therapeutic drug that can help horses’ joints, was also found in Baffert’s 2020 Kentucky Oaks-winning filly Gamine, who along with colt Charlatan tested positive for the painkiller lidocaine last year in Arkansas. Another Baffert-trained horse, Merneith, tested positive for a cough suppressant after racing July 25 at Del Mar in California.

Baffert in November vowed to “do better,” hiring a veterinarian for extra oversight and saying, “I intend to do everything possible to ensure I receive no further medication complaints.”

Then one happened on horse racing’s biggest stage.

“Somehow, here we are again,” Moss said. “A lot of people in racing are sort of scratching their heads as to why this would repeatedly happen to one guy.”

Lukas said Baffert has “been hit with some circumstances that are uncontrollable.” While Irby and others point to the Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act that goes into effect in July 2022 as an opportunity to better police drugs in horses, the 85-year-old Hall of Fame trainer thinks it should raise the threshold “to what’s realistic” for therapeutic medications above the 21 picograms Medina Spirit tested positive for.

Baffert has repeatedly emphasized that a picogram is a trillionth of one gram to explain how little of the substance was discovered in the test, saying, “Horse racing must address its regulatory problem when it comes to substances which can innocuously find their way into a horse’s system at the picogram level.”

Regardless of the amount, Medina Spirit will be disqualified from the Kentucky Derby if a second test also comes back positive. And if anything shows up in Maryland’s additional testing, Medina Spirit will be scratched from the Preakness.

None of it is what Baffert and those in horse racing want to be worried about at the time of year when the sport gets the most attention. Perhaps that’s why Lukas wishes he was still on the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission that will decide the fate of Baffert and his latest champion.

“I would absolutely today tell my colleagues that we need to just dismiss this, throw it out, put the Derby winner back on the throne and move on,” he said. “You almost think the lab should probably have poured it down the sink in the first place.”

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

RELATED: Olympiad cruises to Jockey Club Gold Cup victory

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

RELATED: Taiba wins $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for Baffert

Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!

Pegasus on Jan. 28, Florida Derby on April 1 at Gulfstream

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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. — Gulfstream Park announced the schedule for the 2022-23 Championship Meet, highlighted by the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 28.

Also on Pegasus day: The $1 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, as well as the $500,000 Pegasus World Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

Gulfstream’s top Kentucky Derby prep race, the $1 million Florida Derby, will be run on April 1 as part of a card with 10 stakes races. Other top 3-year-old preps at Gulfstream in early 2023 include the $150,000 Mucho Macho Man on Jan. 1, the $250,000 Holy Bull on Feb. 4 and the $400,000 Fountain of Youth on March 4.

The Pegasus is returning for a seventh time. The format has changed several times in the race’s infancy; the purse structure for the Pegasus World Cup no longer requires owners to put up $1 million apiece for a spot in the starting gate for what was, at its inception, the world’s richest race with a purse that reached $16 million.

This much has remained constant: Winning the Pegasus changes a horse’s resume. No Pegasus winner has ever finished worse than sixth in the yearlong earnings among North American horses, and two past winners – Arrogate and Gun Runner – are two of the three highest-earning thoroughbreds in U.S. history.

Gulfstream’s Championship Meet runs from Dec. 26 through April 2, featuring 60 stakes races, 35 of them graded, and worth a combined $13.6 million.