|By JENNIE REES — Arcadia, Calif. — There’s a lot on the line for McKinzie when the 4-year-old colt breaks from the gate for Saturday’s $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. |
A victory keeps him in the hunt for Horse of the Year, as well as champion older male. It enhances any future stallion deal. There’s also the $3.3 million winner’s purse that is $1.1million above what the son of 2007 Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense already has earned in 13 career starts spanning seven wins and five seconds.
A fourth victory in the Classic would add to the discussion where Hall of Famer Bob Baffert ranks among the greatest trainers ever.
Then, there’s the emotional component. McKinzie, a $170,000 Keeneland yearling purchase, was named by owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman for Brad McKinzie, Baffert’s long-time friend who died at age 62 on Aug. 6, 2017 from renal carcinoma. Brad McKinzie was the force behind Los Alamitos adding daytime thoroughbred meets in 2014 to help fill the void in the Southern California circuit left by the closing of Hollywood Park.
“Every time he gets beat, it’s very frustrating because I think of Brad,” Baffert said Monday morning at Santa Anita after McKinzie worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.20, the fastest of 41 works at that distance. “… A lot of people don’t think I have a heart, but I do.
“I’m a softy, and Brad was the biggest softy of them all. When I won my first Kentucky Derby, I was up on the podium. I look down and I see Brad in tears. He’s just crying. We’ve known him forever. That’s just the kind of guy he was, my No. 1 fan. He showed up for all the Triple Crown races.
“When he got sick that last year, it was tough watching him go through what he went through, and the things he sacrificed in life to take care of his family. He would never complain. Until the last day, I’d always say, ‘Brad, how you feeling?’ ‘Great!’ That was him. He didn’t want anyone feeling sorry for him. He was tough. I wish I could be that tough.”
McKinzie was to be Baffert’s Triple Crown horse last year, but he was injured after winning two Kentucky Derby prep stakes at Santa Anita. Baffert won his second Triple Crown with Justify, who never ran again after the Belmont Stakes.
Meanwhile, McKinzie returned from a six-month layoff to win the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby. There was no fairytale ending back at Churchill Downs that fall for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, however, as McKinzie faded to 12th. As a 4-year-old, McKinzie has run well in every start but hasn’t put together consecutive wins.
After concluding 2018 with victory in the Grade 1 Malibu, McKinzie was second behind 2017 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile winner Battle of Midway in the Grade 2 San Pasqual.
McKinzie subsequently lost the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap by a nose to Gift Box, dominated in Churchill Downs’ Grade 2 Alysheba, rallied to narrowly lose the prestigious Metropolitan Mile to Breeders’ Cup Sprint favorite Mitole, won Saratoga’s Grade 1 Whitney over Breeders’ Cup Classic contenders Yoshida and Vino Rosso, then was tripped up when second again back at Santa Anita in the Grade 1 Awesome Again won by 25-1 shot Mongolian Groom.
“To me, I think we’re all living through this horse, thinking about Brad,” Baffert said. “He’s got a lot of fans. I feel a little extra pressure on me when this horse runs, because I know we’re all thinking about him. I’m just glad we named a really good horse after him. It would have been horrible if I’d have had to geld this horse. And Brad was probably one of the funniest guys I’ve ever been around. We just loved him.”
Baffert met McKinzie when both were attending the University of Arizona’s Race Track Industry Program. He said McKinzie ended up living with the Baffert family, his mom thinking of him as another son and the trainer’s kids calling him Uncle Brad.
There were also McKinzie’s immeasurable contributions to racing, including working with Los Alamitos owner Dr. Ed Allred to bring quality thoroughbred racing to the quarter horse track.
“He was a savior of thoroughbred racing,” Baffert said. “Brad, we really miss him. He was for the horses, for the trainers and owners. He wanted everyone to be happy. It’s very rare we get those kind of people anymore. Usually they’re just worrying about holding on to their job. He was not that kind of guy.”
Baffert said McKinzie’s mom, Jean, won’t be able to be at Santa Anita this Saturday but is coming out during the week to see her son’s equine namesake.
“His mother told me this horse gives her a reason to live, 93 I think she is now,” he said. “So she’s excited about it. We’re all excited about it.
“… He’s a good horse. It’s a tough race. He needs to get away from the gate and get into the race early. That’s the way he wants to run. He gets stronger as he goes. But he’s got to show up that day. It’s all about showing up. I’ve seen great fields put together, but a lot of horses don’t show up.”
For the first time in his career, McKinzie will have a jockey other than Mike Smith, with Baffert opting to make a switch after the Awesome Again defeat. Joel Rosario picks up the mount, with Smith to ride Yoshida in the Classic, a horse that Rosario rode for Bill Mott in his last two starts, including second behind McKinzie in the Whitney.
“He’s a little tricky horse to ride,” Baffert said. “I know how he’s got to be ridden, and we’ll see what happens. I’ll be sitting down with Joel. But he’s ridden against him. He’s beaten him (on Gift Box). These guys, they’re so good. They see the videos.
“… I just want the horse to show up. If he shows up and gets outrun, he gets outrun. But you know what? I want the horse to get beat (running) his style. There’s a lot on the line. There are championships on the line. Horse of the Year on the line. That’s the beauty of the Breeders’ Cup. They give out a lot of championships this weekend. I just hope some of mine are the list.”
Jennie Rees, for Kentucky HBPA, Ellis Park and Kentucky Downs, is an HRI contributor