Prat honors commitment to ride Hot Rod Charlie in Belmont

Flavien Prat honors commitment to ride Hot Rod Charlie in Belmont Stakes
Mitch Stringer-USA TODAY Sports
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NEW YORK (AP) After Flavien Prat rode Hot Rod Charlie in the Kentucky Derby, he committed ride him again at the Belmont Stakes.

Trainer Doug O’Neill called Prat’s agent multiple times since to double check. When Prat won the Preakness aboard Rombauer, O’Neill made another call to triple check and was told once again the jockey would return to Hot Rod Charlie.

It’s the first time in 12 years a jockey chose not to ride the horse he won a Triple Crown race with in the next leg of the series.

“His agent never wavered,” O’Neill said. “The way Rombauer won, believe me, it’s human nature to be like, `Geez, how do we take off the Preakness horse for a horse that didn’t win the Derby?’ I think that’s a credit to Charlie and what Flavien thinks about Charlie.”

O’Neill chalks it up to loyalty, while Rombauer trainer Michael McCarthy called it a “non-issue.” All McCarthy did was add two-time Belmont-winning Hall of Famer John Velazquez to ride Rombauer.

“Obviously you win a Classic, you expect to kind of put the same team on the floor that got you there,” McCarthy said Wednesday. “That’s the horse they choose. I was aware of that right after the Preakness. We’re fine where we’re at.”

Prat’s agent, Brad Pegram, didn’t respond to a message seeking comment about the situation. The most recent example of a jockey switching like this was Calvin Borel in 2009, when he picked filly Rachel Alexandra over Kentucky Derby champion Mine That Bird – and won the Preakness with her.

“I was taken off horses after a Classic win but I don’t remember ever having that difficult a decision,” said retired jockey Jerry Bailey, now an analyst at NBC Sports. “That’s a tough call.”

ESSENTIAL START

Favorite Essential Quality took to the track at Belmont Park for the first time Wednesday morning, jogging just under the 1 1/2-mile distance he’s set to run in the race. Trainer Brad Cox said he heard “everything that you want to hear” from assistant Dustin Dugas who rode Essential Quality in the workout.

“He seemed to get over the ground pretty well,” Cox said. “He said he was very, very smooth.”

Essential Quality went off as the Derby favorite and finished fourth after a difficult trip. He opened as the 2-1 favorite in the field of eight for the Belmont.

JAPAN’S HORSE

If France Go de Ina pulls off a major upset in the Belmont, his owner, trainer and staff would cash in on a $1 million bonus from the New York Racing Association for any horse from Japan that wins the race. The Kentucky-bred colt who’s based in Japan missed the Derby and finished sixth in the Preakness.

“They were hoping originally to go to the Kentucky Derby from there, but that was impossible,” exercise rider and traveling assistant Masaki Tanako said through an interpreter. “Being nominated for the Triple Crown, you’re able to give it a good go for the other two. We figured we might as well take advantage of the other two nominations.”

Beyond the $1 million bonus, France Go de Ina is running for his owner and trainer’s home country that’s in a state of emergency because of the pandemic.

“In Japan, winning abroad is always a big thing kind of carrying that Team Japan spirit,” Tanako said. “With everything going on in Japan with the coronavirus right now, being able to come back with a big win like this would probably be very uplifting.”

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.”