Come on Bob Baffert, give somebody else a chance.
It’s apparently not enough that the world’s most famous Thoroughbred racing trainer is fresh off his second Triple Crown in just the past four years. He’s busy stacking his Kentucky Derby deck for next year.
On Friday, even-money favorite and Baffert-trained Game Winner captured the Grade 1, $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile by 2¼ lengths over runner-up Knicks Go at Churchill Downs.
And, it turns out, Game Winner might not even be the most promising 2-year-old in the Baffert barn. That title might belong to Roadster, a promising Quality Road colt who was deemed done for the year after finishing third in the Del Mar Futurity back on Sept. 3.
“We’ve got a few there that we’re getting ready,” said Baffert, acknowledging that Game Winner might have jumped to the top of his list. “That horse, he likes Churchill Downs. That’s a good sign.”
No one rivals Baffert in shepherding a colt through the long, treacherous journey between now and that first Saturday in May. Look at last year when Justify did not arrive in the Baffert stable in time to run as a 2-year-old, did not make the starting gate for his first race and then swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont in historic fashion.
Game Winner is following a more traditional path. The son of Candy Ride arrived in Louisville after going 3-for-3 in California, including a pair of Grade 1s in the Del Mar Futurity and the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita. Game Winner enjoyed perfect trips in both.
That wasn’t the case Friday. In the words of Gary West, who owns the colt with wife Mary, Game Winner broke “squirrelly” from his No. 9 post. Bumped a bit, he was forced to be taken wide by jockey Joel Rosario, who finally found some running room and stepped on the gas.
“Joel Rosario did a helluva job,” said West, who runs his racing operation along with wife Mary.
Knicks Go didn’t do too badly either. A surprise winner of the Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland as a 70-1 shot, the son of Paynter stalked pace-setter Complexity before taking the lead at the top of the stretch. After being passed by Game Winner, Knicks Go still finished a length in front of third-place finisher Signalman.
“I knew he was going to be pretty fast,” Baffert said of Knicks Go. “He was pretty impressive the way he won the race at Keeneland.”
“He keeps outrunning his odds,” said Knicks Go trainer Ben Colebrook. “Maybe people will start giving him some respect now.”
At least they got to run Friday. Code of Honor, third choice in the Morning Line behind Game Winner and Complexity, was scratched by trainer Shug McGaughey after developing a fever the morning of the race.
“You saw what happened to Shug,” Baffert said. “We’re never safe until we put that saddle on the horse.”
Friday marked the 15th Breeders’ Cup win for Baffert, who now has four Juvenile wins under his belt. He won in 2002 with Vindication, in 2008 with Midshipman and 2013 with New Year’s Day, owned by Gary and Mary West. Not one of those three went on to be one of Baffert’s five Derby winners, however.
“We’ve been through it so many times we know what we need to do,” Baffert said. “We just need to keep him the way he is.”
Plus you never know what contenders will emerge. Take a 2-year-old named Instagrand, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, who was given the rest of the year off after impressively winning his first two races in California to jump to the front of the Juvenile futures pool. The top six horses in that pool skipped the race.
Still, Baffert said he’s always liked Game Winner, a $110,000 Keeneland September Yearling Sale purchase who made his debut on Aug. 18.
“I’ve been telling Gary all along I think he’s special,” Baffert said.
“About the eighth pole, I started thinking roses,” said the trainer, with a laugh.