|By JENNIE REES — Trainers Dale Romans and Bob Baffert are good friends along with being frequent competitors in America’s top races for 2-year-olds and 3-year-olds.
They face off again in Friday’s $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita. Romans, Churchill Downs’ all-time win leader and lifelong Louisvillian, is sending out $400,000 Saratoga yearling Dennis’ Moment, Churchill’s Grade 3 Iroquois victor after taking an Ellis Park maiden race by 19 1/4 lengths in his second start.
The Hall of Famer and five-time Kentucky Derby winner Baffert shoots for his fifth Juvenile victory with $520,000 Keeneland yearling Eight Rings, winner of Santa Anita’s Grade 1 American Pharoah, a stakes renamed for his 2015 Triple Crown winner.
Both Dennis’ Moment and Eight Rings are 2 for 3, with their riders being unseated in their lone defeat.
Romans and Baffert sat down together Saturday morning at Santa Anita’s Clockers’ Corner to talk about their standout colts, who figure to be the top two favorites in Friday’s $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, with Keeneland’s 2-for-2 Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity winner Maxfield also getting a lot of play.
Below is their exchange, with minor edits:
Baffert: “All I know, if you listen to the trainer (Brendan Walsh) of Maxfield, and you and me, that winner’s circle is going to be pretty crowded, because everybody thinks they can win. It’s fun, but I think it’s one of the toughest Juvenile races I’ve been in.”
Romans: “Even (Iroquois runner-up) Scabbard, he’s a good horse. Maxfield is a good horse. Eight Rings is a good horse. My horse is a good horse. Even though it’s a smaller field, I think it’s as good a field as they’ve put together.”
Baffert: “I’m just mad we didn’t buy (Dennis’ Moment) at Saratoga. He was on our list and we sort of passed him up. But he (Romans) has a sharper eye than I do.”
Romans: “Honest, ‘sort of passed him up’ is the story he likes to tell now. But the story I heard was ‘I don’t want a Tiznow.’ That’s what I heard Bob had to say.”
Baffert, referring to his wife: “Jill is always telling me, ‘Do not be a sire snob,’ but sometimes we let it get away from us. But I’m looking forward to it. Of all the races, I’m really excited about him and McKinzie (in the Classic), those two races. But I’d rather be running (the Juvenile) on a Saturday. These horses are Saturday horses. Not Friday horses.”
Romans: “I agree. The original Breeders’ Cup races should all be on Saturday.”
Baffert: “I mean, you’re talking about the future of people following them down the road, hopefully they’ll be in the Kentucky Derby. But this group is a Saturday group.”
Romans: “The problem with this race, at least the three favorites, is that second’s not good enough. Second’s not good enough in this race for any of those three horses. I think it’s going to be one of the most interesting races on the entire weekend, and of course one that people like to follow the most because of what it does for next year and who is going to be the early Derby favorite.”
Would you sign up to take second in the Juvenile if you could be guaranteed winning the 2020 Kentucky Derby?
Baffert: “What kind of question is that?”
Romans: “That’s a loaded question. Nothing positive can come out of it. But give me the paper to sign. He’s already done it (five) times.”
Until Street Sense in 2007, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile figured prominently into determining the Kentucky Derby winner, just not for the Juvenile winner.
Romans: “You know, one of the things that I think made American Pharoah the Triple Crown winner, a lot of us couldn’t have withstood the pressure (to run in the Juvenile after American Pharoah developed a minor foot problem). I know Bob could have run him in the Juvenile that year. But how many of us would have the power to say, ‘No, we’re not going to run. It’s going to be better for him in the future to wait right now.’ And look how it turned out for American Pharoah. But you also look at the champion 2-year-olds who have won this race and the good sires that they’ve become. This is a sire-making race. It’s an important race. It’s hard to look past this weekend.”
Your horses have similar form: Both might have been unbeaten in their three starts if they hadn’t lost their rider in a race (Eight Rings in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity and Dennis’ Moment in his debut).
Baffert: “It’s very rare: They both lost their riders, they’re the horses to beat. What was it with yours?”
Romans: “Another horse came over on top of him and about dropped him, and (Robby Albarado) came off. We’ll probably be the first or second choices, with Maxfield in there with us. But it is odd that both of us lost a rider.”
Baffert: “We were in the paddock with the owners’ group and somebody says, ‘We can’t lose the Del Mar Futurity unless the jockey falls off.’ When I heard that, I said, ‘Why did you say that?’ Racing, a thousand things can go wrong. Every year something happens that has never happened before. I was sitting there in disbelieve. Drayden Van Dyke was injured but it could have been a lot worse. Matter of fact, the horse stepped on his wrist that he’d broken two years ago. He’s got a plate in there, and the plate kept it from snapping. That’s how bad it was. The horse could have gotten up and hit the fence. But he actually got up and galloped around the field and went right on by them. So he thinks he’s undefeated.”
Romans: “Same thing happened with my horse. He ran down those horses. Whether he got there or not, he got awful close at 58 and change after stumbling and ripping off his shoe getting up and running down those horses. Then he just went to the outrider and pulled himself up. It was amazing. It was a tough thing to stand up there and watch him run loose with the reins dangling. What about with yours?”
Baffert: “I was sitting next to (bloodstock agent) Donato Lanni. The programs are pretty thick at Del Mar because they’ve got a lot of races. He was so upset. (Son) Bodie told me later, ‘Did you see Donato after the race? He got the program and just ripped it in half — the strength! I could never do that. But that’s the disappointment. We were just in awe and disbelief. We just want a nice clean race (in the Juvenile), everybody come out of it healthy and safe.
“But I think these are two superstars in the making, just raw talent. I just hope turning for home that they’re right there. That’s all a trainer can ask for: turning for home, you’re in the fight and have something to root for.”
Romans: “And may the best horse win. And hopefully we’re having this same discussion Belmont Stakes week, if they can go through the winter and be healthy and make it through the Triple Crown run.”
Dale, if Bob thought about buying Dennis’ Moment, did you look at Eight Rings at the sale?
Romans: “There’s some argument about that. I don’t remember ever seeing him, so somehow he didn’t make it through the short-listers to us. We’ve been discussing why, trying to figure out how we missed him.”
Talk about your relationship and when you became such good friends.
Baffert: “It’s been a friendly rivalry. Just like when he jumped up and beat American Pharoah in the Travers (with Keen Ice).”
Romans: “I wasn’t going to bring that up, but since you did: The first call I got was from Bob, and that was pretty classy, congratulating me on winning the Travers.”
Baffert: “He had him ready and he beat us. I like to acknowledge when someone does something great, and that was huge.”
What do you admire most about the other guy’s horse?
Baffert: “What I like about his horse is that he’s a beautiful horse. He’s very balanced. He just does it easily, he skips over the ground. The one thing about the great ones, they don’t get tired, they just do it effortlessly. I was watching him work (Friday). I thought he was going 12-and-change. I looked down and see an ‘11’ and thought ‘wow.’ I was trying to find something to knock the horse. That’s what trainers do: We try to find something we don’t like…. He made this track look fast. He’s definitely the horse to beat. It’s not going to be a gimme. We’re both going to have to leave there and have some racing luck, but it’s going to be a tough race.”
Romans: “There are a lot of things to like about Eight Rings: Pedigree power, just a big strong, pretty horse. But the biggest concern I have is that Bob Baffert trains him, and when he shows up, he’ll be on his game.
Jennie Rees, for Ellis Park, Kentucky Downs and Kentucky HBPA, is a HorseRaceInsider contributor