Kentucky Derby leads off Triple Crown without Bob Baffert

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The Kentucky Derby leads off the first Triple Crown season in decades without the chance of Bob Baffert officially winning one or more of the three races.

Baffert’s absence while suspended shadows over the race, particularly because two horses he trained for a significant period of time are among the top contenders. Former assistant Tim Yakteen would get the credit if Taiba or Messier wins after taking over training duties.

“It’s a talking point, but it’s not a distraction other than that,” retired jockey Jerry Bailey said. “To me, the only thing that’s going to be different is the record books.”

Taiba could become the first horse since 1883 to win the Derby with two or fewer previous starts. Baffert-trained Justify won it on the way to sweeping the Triple Crown in 2018 after racing just three times before the first Saturday in May.

“Times have changed in that regard,” NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said. “Horses run much less often now leading into the Kentucky Derby in general, so it was just a matter of time.”

This is Bailey’s 34th Derby and Moss’ 41st, with many of them on the NBC Sports set and around the Churchill Downs barns and track together for more than a decade. They tend to agree more often than not, with the notable exception of 2014 when they disagreed about the ride jockey Victor Espinoza gave California Chrome in losing the Belmont with the chance to end the sport’s lengthy Triple Crown drought.

Asked if there was a potential Triple Crown winner in this crop of 3-year-olds, Moss said it was impossible to say and pointed to plenty of near-misses over the years. Bailey thinks lightly raced Taiba could be the one.

“If he were able to do this and win the Kentucky Derby, he still only has three starts this year,” said Bailey, who won the Derby twice. “With others maybe having peaked or close to being peaked to try and get to the Kentucky Derby and win it, he might be one that is just on the ascension.”

Among the 10 horses who entered the Derby with as little racing experience as Taiba over the past century-plus, none have come close to winning this race.

“The average margin of defeat’s been 25 lengths,” Moss said. “But the difference is none of those horses were given any chance at all to win. And this horse is completely different. This horse is in with an outstanding chance to win.”

Taiba faces a different challenge in a crowded, 20-horse field than his first two races with much more room to maneuver. Bailey said the challenge is for Mike Smith to try to replicate the trips Taiba got his first two times out of the starting gate to keep the colt comfortable.

“He hasn’t run against large fields, and he’s had very, very clean trips, no traffic,” Bailey said. “For Mike Smith, his biggest job is to get him out of the starting gate, which the horse does have some early speed and put him in a position where there’s not that many new things happening to him early in the race.”

A victory by Taiba would make Smith, 56, the oldest jockey to win the Derby. In his way are a record five jockeys from France and a few trainers not named Baffert looking to capture the first jewel of the Triple Crown for the first time.

Steve Asmussen, who has the most wins of any trainer in North America, has the expected favorite in Epicenter. Chad Brown’s Zandon is another serious challenger who is training well and could give the champion trainer his first Derby victory.

Crown Pride would be the first Japan-based horse to win any Triple Crown race. He won the UAE Derby in March in Dubai.

The post position draw is Monday in Louisville.

Pegasus races planned for Gulfstream and Santa Anita in 2024

Horse racing on Opening day of the winter-spring meet at Santa Anita Park.
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HALLANDALE BEACH, Fla. – After seven Pegasus World Cup events, it’s evidently time for change.

1/ST Racing, which has hosted the entirety of the Pegasus series to this point at Gulfstream Park, is planning for two Pegasus days in 2024 – one at Gulfstream and the other at Santa Anita. Details aren’t finalized and it’s unclear how it would fit in the racing calendar, but 1/ST is planning for both dirt and turf Pegasus races as part of the Santa Anita program.

Gulfstream played host to the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational on the dirt Saturday, along with the $1 million Pegasus Turf and the $500,000 Pegasus Filly and Mare Turf.

“I’d really love to see that we bring it to the West Coast,” 1/ST President and CEO Belinda Stronach said. “That will probably happen in 2024. What we did this year for 2023 was said, `OK, we have a number of great race days, let’s coordinate those better and call it the 1/ST Racing Tour and recognize great achievements within our own footprint.”

Saturday marked the first stop on that new 1/ST Racing Tour. Along with some of the biggest race days at 1/ST tracks – like Florida Derby day at Gulfstream on April 1, Santa Anita Derby day on April 8 and the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico on May 20 – there are a pair of days where the tour will be running simultaneously.

This coming Saturday, Gulfstream will play host to the Holy Bull while Santa Anita has the Robert B. Lewis – both of them Kentucky Derby prep races.

And on March 4, Gulfstream has the Fountain of Youth, another major Derby prep, while San Anita has the Big Cap. Plans call for coordinated post times at those two tracks on those days to provide the best racing action every 20 minutes, as well as some unique betting options.

“We can never rest on our laurels,” Stronach said. “We have to keep moving forward. We have a great team that’s really committed.”

The main Pegasus race is one of the biggest-paying races in North America. Art Collector claimed about $1.8 million from a $3 million purse with his win on Saturday. In 2022, only the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic and $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf featured bigger prizes among U.S. races, and the $3 million Pegasus purse is equal to the one offered last year at the Kentucky Derby.

Regardless of what happens with the Santa Anita plan for future Pegasus events, Stronach insisted Gulfstream will continue having Pegasus days. There has even been talk about Gulfstream playing host to Breeders’ Cup races again, something that hasn’t happened since 1999.

“This is staying here in Miami,” Stronach said. “Pegasus has a home here in Miami. We can’t move Pegasus from Miami. We have great partners here and it’s more than just a day now. We have deep roots here in Miami.”

Arabian Knight earns Baffert record 6th win in Southwest

Betway Challow Hurdle Day - Newbury Racecourse
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HOT SPRINGS, Ark. – Arabian Knight won the $750,000 Southwest Stakes by 5 1/2 lengths at Oaklawn, giving Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert his record sixth victory in the race.

The colt came into the Kentucky Derby prep as one of the most highly touted 3-year-olds in the country. Arabian Knight, who was purchased for $2.3 million as a 2-year-old, was making his second career start and first on a sloppy track in front of 27,000 fans in Arkansas.

“These good horses are hard to come by,” said Baffert, who was on hand in Hot Springs. “We’ve had a lot of luck here at Oaklawn, so it was nice to have a horse like this.”

However, Arabian Knight was ineligible to earn the Kentucky Derby qualifying points awarded to the winner because Baffert has been suspended for two years by Churchill Downs Inc. The penalty, which ends shortly after this year’s Derby on May 6, stems from Medina Spirit’s medication violation after the colt won the 2021 Derby and was later disqualified. Baffert is challenging the ban in court.

Ridden by John Velazquez, Arabian Knight ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:43.50 and paid $2.80 to win. He is 2-0 and has career earnings of $544,275.

“He ran 1:43 and change, that’s racehorse time and he did it without taking a deep breath,” Baffert said. “This was a big effort.”

Red Route One closed from last to finish second, and Frosted Departure was third. Sun Thunder was fourth, followed by Jace’s Road, Corona Bolt, El Tomate and Western Ghent.

At Gulfstream in Florida, Baffert’s entry Defunded finished second in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup, beaten by 4 1/2 lengths by Art Collector on Saturday.