by Jeremy Plonk
June 1, 2020
Trainer Bob Baffert has won the Santa Anita Derby a record 9 times in his Hall of Fame career. He takes aim at a potential 10th trophy in Saturday’s showcase race at the Great Race Place. We tasked our panel of experts in the 1/ST family to rank Baffert’s historic group of Santa Anita Derby champs. The assignment was simple: Rank them in the order you’d want to draft into your stable. The top pick earned 9 points in our balloting down to 1 for the final selection.
The five-member selection panel included: Millie Ball and Jeff Siegel of XBTV; Jon White, morning line maker at Santa Anita and Xpressbet blogger; and John Desantis and Jeremy Plonk of Xpressbet.
#9 Midnight Interlude (2011) | Video
The most unlikely Santa Anita Derby winner of Baffert’s 9, Midnight Interlude upset the 2011 field at nearly 14-1 odds just 20 days after breaking his maiden in his third start. Victorious on Santa Anita’s former synthetic surface, Midnight Interlude finished well up the track in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and won only once more in 9 starts after his signature score. He wound up standing stud in India. Rankings points: 5.
#8 Roadster (2019) | Video
The most recent member of this list, to date Roadster boasts only of the Santa Anita Derby among his stakes scores. He upended stablemate and 1-2 favorite Game Winner in last year’s Santa Anita Derby before failing to fire in 15th in the Kentucky Derby. He’s 0-7 since his big victory, but has been runner-up in the Grade 1 Malibu and Grade 2 San Carlos sprinting. Rankings points: 11.
#7 Cavonnier (1996) | Video
The first Triple Crown foray for Baffert came with this 1996 Santa Anita Derby 10-1 upsetter, who arrived in Louisville with 13 career starts already in tow. Cavonnier rallied to miss by only a nose to Grindstone in the run for the roses, one of the closest finishes in race history. He added a Preakness fourth before being injured in the running of the Belmont Stakes. The Cal-bred gelding returned to racing in 1998 and competed through 2000, but never again in the graded stakes ranks. Rankings points: 18.
#6 Dortmund (2015) | Video
In the rarest of years, a Santa Anita Derby winner isn’t even the best 3-year-old in his own barn. Dortmund led every step as the favorite in the 2015 SA Derby to remain undefeated in 6 starts, but it was stablemate American Pharoah who was rerouted on the prep trail to Oaklawn and who would eventually make history as a Triple Crown winner. Dortmund held his own in Louisville, finishing a game third to American Pharoah, but was no match at Pimlico. He would add the Grade 3 Native Diver as a 4-year-old, but lost his final 7 races. Rankings points: 19.
#5 Pioneerof The Nile (2009) | Video
Perhaps best known as the eventual sire of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, papa Pioneerof The Nile was Baffert’s best 3-year-old in the brief synthetic-surface era at Santa Anita. He won 4 consecutive graded stakes, culminating in his Santa Anita Derby as the 4-5 favorite. The son of Empire Maker ran second to romping 50-1 Kentucky Derby upsetter Mine That Bird before finishing up the track in the Preakness, his final career start. Rankings points: 24.
#4 General Challenge (1999) | Video
After Kentucky Derby victories in 1997 with Silver Charm and 1998 with Real Quiet, Baffert’s chance at a three-peat looked formidable after General Challenge won the 1999 Santa Anita Derby by more than 3 lengths over stablemate Prime Timber. But a troubled start thwarted his chances in Louisville, where he wound up 11th as part of a favored entry with the filly Excellent Meeting. He made some amends that summer taking the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. At age 4, General Challenge would score the Strub and Santa Anita Handicap, earning more than $2.8 million lifetime. Rankings points: 31.
#3 Indian Charlie (1998) | Video
While he made only 5 career starts, the meteoric rise of Indian Charlie in 1998 was on full display when this Cal-bred put away a field that included stablemate Real Quiet and eventual sprint champion Artax in the Santa Anita Derby. That victory sent him to the Kentucky Derby as the 5-2 post-time favorite, but he couldn’t collar Real Quiet at Churchill and wound up third in his final start and only defeat. He would go on to sire Breeders’ Cup champions such as Uncle Mo and Indian Blessing. Perhaps the most debated of these rankings, he nosed out the deeper-resumed General Challenge by way of his brilliant talent. Rankings points: 32.
#2 Point Given (2001)
There’s only 1 Kentucky Derby day for any horse, and unfortunately for Point Given, that just wasn’t his day. But in the 2001 Santa Anita Derby, there was no doubt as the big horse cruised by more than 5 lengths as the 3-5 favorite. Whether he moved too soon into a hot pace in Louisville, or was done in by some minor physical issues, his fifth-place finish on the first Saturday in May was soon proven an aberration. Point Given never lost again, winning 4 straight Grade 1 stakes, including the Preakness, Belmont (by 12-1/4 lengths), Haskell and Travers. Millie Ball had a front-row seat as an exercise rider for his rise to fame, and recalled: “I was working horses for Baffert at Hollywood Park and on June 20, 2000 the barn had decided to shorten up Point Given’s drills to put some speed and focus into him. This was the day he revealed he could really run!” John Desantis called Point Given “the best Baffert-trained horse to never win the Kentucky Derby. He would have/should have/could have won the Triple Crown if not for an untimely physical issue.” Point Given was ranked No. 1 on 1 of 5 ballots, second on the other 4. Rankings points: 41.
#1 Justify (2018) | Video
In just his third lifetime start and only 7 weeks since he debuted on the racetrack, Justify wired the 2018 Santa Anita Derby while holding rival Bolt d’Oro at bay. He spring-boarded that success into a historic Triple Crown sweep that saw him become the first Kentucky Derby winner in more than a century to not have raced as a 2-year-old. Justify was retired after the Belmont Stakes with a 6-for-6 record. Justify was ranked No. 1 in 4 of 5 ballots, second in the other. Rankings points: 44.
Our panelists’ offered their reactions.
Jeff Siegel: “Justify vanquished the Apollo curse – thank you! He also won the Triple Crown and retired unbeaten in a career that spanned less than four months.”
John Desantis: “Triple Crown winner … enough said.”
Millie Ball: "The best! A Triple Crown winner with a perfect record and a stride resembling (Olympic world record-setting runner) Wayde van Niekerk.”
Jon White: “When Point Given won the Santa Anita Derby, I was confident that he would go on to sweep the Triple Crown. But, alas, in what would be an inopportune time for Point Given to run the worst race of his career, he finished fifth in the Kentucky Derby won by Monarchos. Point Given would go on to win the Preakness (beating Monarchos by 7 1/2 lengths) and Belmont (beating Monarchos by 13 lengths). Point Given's Belmont was a tour de force as he won by 12 1/4 lengths. But as terrific as Point Given was, I rank Justify at No. 1 among Baffert's Santa Anita Derby winners for three primary reasons. First, Justify DID win the Triple Crown. Second, in a remarkable achievement, Justify became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby without having raced as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. And third, Justify is the only one of Baffert's nine Santa Anita Derby winners who never lost a race.”
Jeremy Plonk: “I appreciate what Justify accomplished, but I’m on an island in my preference to Point Given as the best on this list. I was fortunate to be trackside for his Preakness, Belmont, Haskell and Travers romps to close his career. His Belmont was other-worldly.”