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Baffert Runners Get Kentucky Derby Respect

by Jon White

November 28, 2018

When it comes to the Run for the Roses, trainer Bob Baffert is no Rodney Dangerfield.

No doubt the reason Baffert gets so much respect vis-a-vis the Kentucky Derby is the white-haired Hall of Famer has won the race five times:

1997 Silver Charm 
1998 Real Quiet
2002 War Emblem
2015 American Pharoah
2018 Justify

American Pharoah and Justify both would go on to sweep the Triple Crown.

Ben Jones, another Hall of Famer, is the only trainer with more Kentucky Derbies than Baffert. Jones has won it six times:

1938 Laurin
1941 Whirlaway
1944 Pensive
1948 Citation
1949 Ponder
1952 Hill Gail

Whirlaway and Citation were Triple Crown winners.

It is, of course, still several months before the 2019 Kentucky Derby. Nevertheless, it’s clear from how bettors approached Pool One of the 2019 Kentucky Derby Future Wager (KDFW) that closed last Sunday that Baffert currently is in an enviable position in terms of possibly winning the race for a record-tying sixth time next May 2.

Game Winner ended up being the 5-1 favorite among the 22 individual horses in Pool One of the KDFW.

Coliseum and Instagrand closed at 10-1 each, followed by Improbable at 17-1. Coliseum and Improbable, like Game Winner, hail from the powerful Baffert barn. Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer conditions Instagrand.

Game Winner, Coliseum, Instagrand and Improbable are a combined nine for nine.

After back-to-back Grade I wins at Del Mar and Santa Anita, Game Winner registered a 2 1/4-length victory in the Grade I BC Juvenile at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2. The Kentucky-bred Candy Ride colt won the 1 1/16-mile BC Juvenile on the same track that the Kentucky Derby will be run on next spring. This understandably adds to Game Winner’s appeal vis-a-vis the big race next year on the first Saturday in May.

Street Sense won the 2006 BC Juvenile at Churchill, then returned there the following year to capture the Kentucky Derby. He became the first horse to win both the BC Juvenile and Kentucky Derby. The only other horse to win both races is Nyquist, who took the Grade I BC Juvenile at Keeneland in 2015.

Street Sense and Nyquist each was voted an Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male. Game Runner is odds-on to be voted a 2018 Eclipse Award in this same category.

Game Winner was flattered when Signalman won last Saturday’s Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes by a neck on a muddy track at Churchill. Signalman finished third, 3 1/4 lengths behind Game Winner, in the BC Juvenile.

As for Baffert trainees Coliseum and Improbable, the sky appears to be the limit for both.

Coliseum showed early speed and drew off in the stretch to win a seven-furlong maiden special weight race at Santa Anita on Nov. 17 in his debut at 1-2. He is a Kentucky-bred Tapit colt.

Improbable won a six-furlong maiden special weight race by a neck at Santa Anita on Sept. 29 in his debut. The Kentucky-bred City Zip colt then overcame a rough trip early to win the one-mile Street Sense Stakes with authority by 7 1/4 lengths at Churchill on Nov. 2, the same day that Game Winner took the BC Juvenile. Interestingly, Improbable was credited with a 93 Beyer Speed Figure for his Nov. 2 victory, while Game Winner likewise was assigned a 93 Beyer for his Nov. 2 triumph.

According to Baffert, Improbable will make his next start in the Grade I Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 8. Baffert has won this race, which was run at Hollywood Park prior to 2014, a record 10 times:

1997 Real Quiet
1999 Captain Steve
2000 Point Given
2008 Pioneerof the Nile
2009 Lookin At Lucky
2011 Liaison
2014 Dortmund
2015 Mor Spirit
2016 Mastery
2017 McKinzie

Baffert also plans to run Mucho Gusto in the Los Al Futurity. The Kentucky-bred Mucho Macho Man colt is two for two. A four-length winner of a six-furlong maiden special weight race at Los Alamitos on Sept. 20 in his debut, he missed Santa Anita’s Grade I American Pharoah on Sept. 29 because he got sick. Mucho Gusto won Del Mar’s Grade III Bob Hope Stakes by 1 1/2 lengths at seven furlongs on Nov. 17.

Mucho Gusto closed at 20-1 in Pool One of the KDFW.

Will Instagrand provide Hall of Fame trainer Hollendorfer with his first Kentucky Derby victory? I sure think it’s a possibility in light of the colt’s two lopsided victories in his only two starts.

Instagrand cruised to a 10-length victory in a five-furlong maiden special weight race at Los Alamitos on June 29 in his debut. He then won Del Mar’s Grade II Best Pal Stakes by 10 1/4 lengths at six furlongs on Aug. 11.

After the Best Pal, it was decided to not race Instagrand again in 2018. He was sent to Kentucky to take it easy for the rest of the year. The Kentucky-bred Into Mischief colt, who sold for $1.2 million at public auction last March, now is back at Hollendorfer’s Santa Anita barn to gear up for a 2019 campaign.

As expected, the “All Other 3-Year-Old Males” option ended up being the favorite in Pool One of the KDFW. It closed at 6-5.

Here are the final odds for Pool One of the 2019 KDFW:

6-5 All Other 3-Year-Old Males
5-1 Game Winner
10-1 Coliseum
10-1 Instagrand
17-1 Improbable
18-1 Code of Honor
26-1 Maximus Mischief
30-1 Signalman
32-1 Roadster
36-1 Vekoma
43-1 Magic On Tap
44-1 Knicks Go
44-1 Mucho
46-1 Tale of the Union
47-1 Mucho Gusto
53-1 King for a Day
53-1 Uncle Benny
59-1 Cairo Cat
59-1 Network Effect
66-1 All 3-Year-Old Fillies
72-1 Dunph
76-1 Gunmetal Gray
88-1 Epic Dreamer
117-1 Preamble


Brett Favre was one of the greatest quarterbacks of all time. He also is remembered for retiring and then un-retiring a number of times until he finally retired for good on Jan. 17, 2011.

Gary Stevens is one of the greatest jockeys of all time. He announced his retirement last week. This is the third time that Stevens, now 55, has his announced his retirement as a jockey.

Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman reported on Nov. 13 that Stevens was retiring immediately from riding after the jockey’s longtime orthopedist had informed him he has a spinal injury that could lead to a far more serious issue if he were to fall.

“I had an MRI…and the C-4 is up against the spinal cord,” Stevens told Privman of his examination with Dr. James Tibone. “Tibone didn’t mince any words. He said, ‘You’re done.’ ”

According to Privman, Stevens added with a laugh: “There won’t be any comeback from this one.”

When aboard the 2-year-old colt Northwestern, Stevens had a mishap on Nov. 17 before the first race at Del Mar.

“Oddly enough, I never hit the ground,” Stevens said to Mike Willman last Sunday on his radio program Thoroughbred Los Angeles. “It was a whiplash injury that actually happened walking out to the track. I felt a horrendous lightning bolt hit my neck. We were in the post parade, and I was paid to do a job, and you just cowboy up sometimes and do what you gotta do sometimes. But I knew something was wrong. My right arm went numb a little bit. I didn’t have much feeling in it.”

Stevens fulfilled his riding engagement, finishing fifth on Northwestern. That was the race Coliseum won so impressively. Stevens then rode one more race on the card. He finished third on Sparky Ville in the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes, which is going to end up being Stevens’ final ride.

For the record, the 5,137th and final official Thoroughbred victory of Stevens’ illustrious career came on Friendly Steve in the eighth race at Del Mar on Nov. 16. It does seem fitting that win was accomplished in wire-to-wire fashion inasmuch as Stevens treated racing fans to a great many front-running gems through the years.

One thinks of when Stevens and Ruhlmann led past ever pole to win the prestigious 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap for Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham in 1990 at 22-1. Stevens used Ruhlmann’s speed to good advantage by going immediately to the front. But even more than that, Stevens aggressively opened up a six-length lead on the far turn, then managed to have enough gas left in the tank to prevail by 1 3/4 lengths. Criminal Type, who finished second, would go on to be voted the 1990 Horse of the Year.

I was the Daily Racing Form’s chart-caller at the Southern California tracks in 1990. This is what I wrote for the chart when Ruhlmann won the 1990 Big ’Cap:

“RUHLMANN broke sharply to take the lead at once, moved over to the inner rail before going a quarter after drawing clear without being sent, steadily increased his lead on the backstretch without being hard ridden, continued to draw away on the far turn while under a fairly brisk hand ride, had a commanding advantage a quarter of a mile out, still was well in front at the furlong marker, had his lead steadily decrease in the final furlong while under left-handed pressure but continued strongly enough in the last furlong to prove best.”

Stevens’ ride on Ruhlmann in the Big ’Cap was similar in its execution to his masterpiece on the big filly Winning Colors in the 1988 Kentucky Derby. Stevens seized command at once and boldly opened up a four-length lead on the far turn, then held on to win by a neck when just staving off the late charge of Forty Niner.

Inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, Stevens first retired as a jockey in 1999. He returned to riding the following October. Stevens retired again in 2005 and became an analyst for NBC. He then returned to riding in 2013.

In 2013, Stevens won the Preakness Stakes and a pair of Breeders’ Cup races. He won the Preakness aboard Oxbow, the BC Classic with Mucho Macho Man and BC Distaff on Beholder. For Stevens to win such important races after a seven-year hiatus as a jockey was nothing less than remarkable. In 2016, Stevens again collaborated with Beholder to win another BC Distaff in what truly was a race for the ages.

In the 2016 Distaff, Stevens and Beholder and fellow Hall of Famer Mike Smith and Songbird battled furiously all the way down the stretch to a nail-biting photo finish. Beholder, in the final race of her marvelous career, prevailed by a scant nose. That was the last of Stevens’ 11 Breeders’ Cup victories.

Stevens won the Kentucky Derby three times (Winning Colors in 1988, Thunder Gulch in 1995 and Silver Charm in 1997), Preakness Stakes three times (Silver Charm in 1997, Point Given in 2001 and Oxbow in 2013) and Belmont Stakes three times (Thunder Gulch in 1995, Real Quiet in 1998 and Point Given in 2001).

It certainly was apropos for Stevens to present the trophy to the winning connections following last Saturday’s Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar. He played the role of George Woolf in the movie “Seabiscuit” that was released in 2003. Stevens earned good reviews for his acting in that film.

Stevens’ rise to the pinnacle of the riding profession is a story that might make a pretty darn good movie.

Gary Lynn Stevens was born on March 6, 1963, in Caldwell, Idaho. At age 6, he was diagnosed with Perthes syndrome, a degenerative disease that debilitates the hip socket. He wore a metal brace on his right leg and a built-up shoe on his right foot.

In his book “The Perfect Ride, Stevens wrote: “The only time I was allowed to remove the brace and shoe was when I was getting ready for bed. If I had to get up in the night, I would hop to the bathroom -- mom remembers hearing me. I never cheated; I wanted to do everything right. And every month, when she took me in for X-rays, we hoped we would hear that big changes had taken place. But time after time, the doctor would say, ‘You’re expecting miracles and it’s not going to happen. This is going to take two to three years.’

“Obviously, I couldn’t play ball or do a lot of the things that other 6-year-olds were doing, but I did learn to ride a bike with one leg. I went to school, of course, but my grades were down and my disposition soured. Little kids can be very cruel, particularly to someone who’s different, and I was a convenient target.

“Frankenstein’s Shoe was one of the choice nicknames they used on me. I didn’t like it…and I fought back. One thing wearing that brace and shoe did for me was make me tougher. I became a fighter. I learned to defend myself with my fists whenever anyone teased me, and I learned to like fighting. I fought a lot during grade school; it was a very difficult time.”

Stevens was finally able to stop wearing the brace and shoe after 18 months. He said it was “kind of miraculous” that he didn’t have to wear them longer than that.

“Six or eight months after I had shed my brace, I got involved in wrestling, and it did the most to boost my recovery,” he said.

When he was 14, Stevens started exercising horses.

“According to Idaho state law,” he wrote, “a rider who gallops and exercises a horse professionally on a racetrack must be licensed, and no license can be issued until a rider is 16. Even if that rider is employed by a parent, he is not allowed on a racetrack.

“When I turned 14, [my brother] Scott and I were about the same size and looked a lot alike. I had my own protective helmet by then, but I used to take his cap and pull it down on top of my helmet, and also put on all the other gear he would wear on his morning rides. I would wear his stuff, and Scott would wear something else, so everyone thought that I was Scott -- which is how I came to exercise horses when I was only 14.

“I got away with doing that for about a month and a half, getting on 15 or 16 horses each morning for my father [Ron, a trainer]. Then I got caught, and any rights that I thought I had to gallop horses on an Idaho racetrack were revoked.”

Stevens recalled what it was like when riding his first races aboard Quarter Horses in Salt Lake City. 
“That first day, I rode six horses,” he wrote. “I didn’t win my first race, but I did win with the third one and ended the day with two winners. I don’t even remember the first race; I think I’ve blacked it out. But I know I stayed on and did well enough, and by the end of the day, I was totally in love with the sport. I knew that’s what I wanted to do.
“After I won my second race and came back to the jockeys’ quarters, I was met by an official from the Utah horse racing board and shaken down for possession of an electrical device. He thought that since the horses were running so well for me, I must be cheating -- carrying something to shock my mounts. Electronic device? I was having enough trouble coming out of the gate let along using anything extra or illegal. I was just trying to hold on. The racing official left me alone.”

Those were unofficial races in Salt Lake City. Stevens’ first official win came on May 5, 1979, in Emmett, Idaho, on a Quarter Horse by the name of Sweet Dancin April. Later that year, Stevens won with his first official Thoroughbred mount, Lil Star, on May 16 at Les Bois Park.

In his book “The Shoe,” written with Dan Smith, the legendary Bill Shoemaker wrote: “Many elements distinguish the great rider from the average one -- balance, intelligence, the ability to switch the whip from one hand to the other and back again, making the right moves most of the time, and a rapport with a horse.”

Gary Stevens certainly possessed all of those qualities. He also had an admirable work ethic and took his craft very seriously.

Some years ago, Stevens told me: “Before a race, I memorize some of the other riders’ silks. I at least try to memorize the contenders and speed horses. That helps me know who’s doing what during a race. And I’ll tell you something else. I make sure my name isn’t on the back of my pants like it is with some riders. I don’t want to make it any easier for them to figure out it’s me.”

How many riders put that much thinking into their job?

When Stevens and yours truly both were working as broadcasters for HRTV a number of years ago, we went to Portland Meadows for a jockey challenge that pitted riders from Portland against those from Golden Gate. Before the day’s first race, I joined Stevens for a visit to the jockeys’ room. I will never forget how every single one of those riders in that jockeys’ room treated Stevens with tremendous reverence.

One of my favorite Stevens memories involved something unusual that occurred during a race at Santa Anita in the 1980s when I was calling the charts for the Daily Racing Form. While watching the videotape replay of a race, I noticed a bird had flown into the head of Stevens’ mount on the backstretch. I included that in my analysis for the chart, known as the footnotes.

A couple of days later, Stevens called me in the press box. Stevens knew that I was the Racing Form’s chart-caller at Santa Anita.

“I was just looking at the charts in the Racing Form and noticed that you had written that my horse got hit in the head by a bird,” Stevens said. “I don’t know how you caught that, but I’m sure glad that you did. When I told the trainer and the owners what had happened, they looked at me like I was crazy. I don’t think they really believed me when I said my horse had been hit in the head by a bird. But there it was, right there in black and white, in the chart. Thanks for catching that.”

I was at Tokyo Race Course (along with more than 150,000 other people) when Stevens won the $2.7 million Japan Cup in 1991 aboard 18-1 Golden Pheasant for trainer Charlie Whittingham. That night at dinner, I asked Stevens what it had been like to ride at Tokyo Race Course. He told me what had been going through his mind in the minutes leading up to one of the early races on the Japan Cup card.

“After the post parade, I noticed the starting gate was on the steeplechase course,” he said. “I thought they had put me in a steeplechase race without telling me. I have never ridden in a steeplechase race.

“And then I thought, ‘Naw. This can’t be a steeplechase race. Surely somebody would’ve told me if it was a steeplechase race.’ But as we got closer and closer to post time, the gate never moved and I figured it really must be a steeplechase race.”

That was when Stevens’ fiercely competitive juices began flowing to an extreme. He said the following at dinner:

“I thought to myself, ‘Okay. I’ll show ’em. I've never ridden in a steeplechase race but I'm going to win it.’ And then they finally did move the gate off the steeplechase course. I sure was glad when they moved that gate.”