by Jeremy Plonk
November 19, 2018
Bob Baffert did the expected Saturday at Del Mar. He won the G3 Bob Hope Stakes for the third time in four years and fifth time in the last seven. His odds-on favorite Mucho Gusto was no surprise and added to the trainer’s litany of juvenile success in 2018. And Mucho Gusto wasn’t even the barn’s fastest freshman on the card. That title went to Coliseum in yet another smashing debut victory for Baffert.
Coliseum opened Del Mar’s Saturday card with a 7-furlong maiden special weight victory in 1:23.13, wiring the field by just under 7 lengths. For grins, Baffert also ran second in the race with rookie Figure Eight. Color him a 3-5 graduate next out. The final time for Coliseum clocked .38 faster than Mucho Gusto, or approximately 2 lengths quicker. Also consider that Mucho Gusto was extended the entire way, while Coliseum was farther clear and absolutely in hand.
Yes, Baffert has had great years before. Heck, he’s won the Triple Crown twice in the last four seasons with American Pharoah and Justify. He slayed the 37-year wait and the Apollo curse. He’s done more myth-busting than those two mustachioed guys on Discovery Channel. But what’s going on right now with his 2-year-olds defies explanation.
It’s true we wrote about this Aug. 27 during the Del Mar summer meet, when Baffert went a ridiculous 11-for-13 with his freshman first-time starters. But as Del Mar has changed its hues from powder blue to a cranberry red, the fall meet has offered no speed bump to the Baffert Express. Baffert went 4-for-5 with his 2YO first-time starters at the Santa Anita stand in-between. Including Saturday’s opener at Del Mar, the Baffert record with 2018 first-time juveniles is 25: 17-1-3. That’s a 68% win rate, 72% in the exacta and 80% in the money.
He’s only lost 5 times outright in 2YO debut races this year to date. Of his 8 defeats, 3 came in races in which another stablemate had his or her picture taken in the winner’s circle. In sheer win percentages, that makes Baffert 17-for-22 with rookie juvenile races – a whopping 77% success rate. That’s either remarkable or unhealthy for the game, depending on your level of cynicism and perspective as a rival or horseplayer. He’s so on point that he even debuted a Del Mar turf route MSW winner, which, for him, is like saying Babe Ruth hit 3 home runs today and also stole a base.
This current rookie run may be among the most remarkable tears we’ve seen in racing. I want to tell you that it’s isolated, but only to a mildly less unfathomable degree. Baffert’s ‘experienced’ juveniles this year are hitting 22: 10-3-3 for percentages of 46% win, 59% exacta and 72% in the money. And a pair of those defeats came in matchups of barnmates. The 10 ‘experienced’ victories include 8 stakes tallies, headed by a trio of Grade 1s from Game Winner. Others arrived on the heels of Chasing Yesterday (twice), Mother Mother, Improbable and the aforementioned Mucho Gusto.
The scariest part about Baffert’s fistful of stakes-winning freshman this year is that all five have different owners. Even those with some partnerships don’t overlap. This isn’t a case of deep pockets benefitting one shedrow. This is a case of many deep pockets concentrating their trust in young horses on a guy who has redefined what it means to have a Lukasian impact on the Triple Crown.
From 2013-’17, Baffert hit 23% with experienced 2YOs and 26% with his first-time 2YOs. He’s doubled the first percentage this year and almost tripled the second. Even by his remarkable career standards, there’s something out of this world about his current juvenile success. Baffert won 20% of the time with his 2YO rookies in 2014, the year before securing the Triple Crown for the first time. Among those defeated was American Pharoah, who would eventually re-write history, but who only mustered a fifth-place finish in his Del Mar summer debut while defeated more than 9 lengths.
I can’t help but think if American Pharoah was in this 2018 Baffert crop that we’d be looking at his past performances in a different light. The way he’s going now, Bob Baffert doesn’t need any do-overs with his babies.