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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing

A KENTUCKY DERBY PARABLE: THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY

HALLANDALE BEACH, FL, May 2, 2021 – On the first Saturday in May, with temperatures in the low 70s, beneath the twin spires and under cloudless skies, 51,838 assorted fans, gamblers, and beautiful people assembled for a traditional celebration of America that was two years in the making.

The Kentucky Derby is sports theater at its best. Like Forrest’s mama always told him, you never know what you’re going to get. And just like a box of assorted chocolates, there are things you like, don’t like, and some you never hope to see again.

Unlike the Godfather, I don’t insist on hearing bad news immediately so, as racetrackers say, let’s get off on the good foot. Just like Johnny Velazquez, who NBC analyst Jerry Bailey termed “the best position rider I’ve ever seen.” Bailey would know.

Johnny V, whose mounts have earned more purse money than any rider in the sport’s history had a plan, one he executed flawlessly with, however unintended, the help of 18 rivals who were clutching and grabbing in a desperate attempt to secure the perfect trip.

The problem is that the best trip of all is early speed virtually unchallenged. There was some mild pressure outside from longshot Soup and Sandwich, as Florent Geroux was content to sit a loose pocket with a loaded Mandaloun. Hot Rod Charlie merely maintained close order after some early traffic issues.

Challenges eventually came on the far turn but the pace was moderate enough to allow Velazquez to tease his rivals, letting out notches of rein as more serious challenges to began to mount. At that point, 18 rivals dwindled down to three of four as headstretch approached.

Racing luck always matters, and fortune smiled on Medina Spirit while potential threats were compromised, seriously or otherwise. Even if he were more experienced, second favorite Rock Your World was completely eliminated at the start when he broke tardily and was badly buffeted about.

In five jumps, Rock Your World’s Derby was over, but wait there’s more.

Midnight Bourbon and Dynamic One came together to the detriment of both. Keepmeinmind broke in a tangle and was the only horse to make ground through the stretch. Sainthood and Brooklyn Strong exchanged punches, knocking each other out.

The horse who eliminated Rock Your World was favorite Essential Quality. This time Luis Saez was blameless. But in riding “the best horse,” Saez gave up too much ground on both turns then pushed the button a tad too soon, mitigating the kind of surge that enabled the champion to win the Blue Grass.

The good news/bad news was trainer Bob Baffert’s record-setting seventh Kentucky Derby victory. It’s not a good look when the face of the sport is placed in an unflattering spotlight on national television. But don’t blame the messenger for reporting the facts.

The positive findings, disqualifications and later Arkansas Racing Commission’s  reversal on appeal was another victory for “process,” allowing a rules-breaker off the hook with arguments of administrative ineptness. Violation of the trainer responsibility rule could not be proven beyond doubt.

The ugly came from the Internet, as it often does, and Racing Twitter had its way with Mr. Baffert and Thoroughbred racing itself. It had questions and made observations, proving that noise that can never be completely shut out. And every tweet tells a story.

Tweet from Michael: “BB has a drug to give more oxygen in there [sic] blood. That would explain how horses never get tired and rebreak in the stretch. This happened in the Triple Crown races, and not an isolated situation.”

Linda’s tweet asked: “What kind of concoctions could be given that can’t be detected through testing?”    

June Wright tweeted: “Worst thing about a cheater winning the Derby? It makes you feel like a fool for even watching. What chumps they must think we are.”

My response to Linda: “Whatever [the concoction], it is in R & D as we speak. Eventually, testing catches up … eventually.”

And this, to no one in particular: “When and if the Feds get to do their thing next year, change has a chance to come. Many people who love the idea of this game will hold their nose, open their ADW account, and bet. Those who can’t live with that reality will walk away, as many have…”

Like Swift tweeted: “I think I’m officially done with horse racing!”

Next stop, Baltimore.

Next Time: A closer look at Saturday’s X’s and O’s and the final two legs of the Triple Crown

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⚠ Before you comment

Our staff likes nothing better than to engage with the HRI Faithful and provide a forum for interaction on horseracing and sports. In that spirit, please be kind and reasonable; keep the language clean, and the tone civil. Comments from those who cannot comply will be deleted. Thank you.

20 Responses

  1. Lots of truths and feelings shared in this Derby. Bottom line no matter your feelings towards Baffert.

    The winning combination of horse and rider of should not be penalized for the any sins by trainer proven or unproven.

  2. Tony, Not sure what you’re referencing. No aspersions cast here on Medina Spirit by the author, and the objections that followed were a matter of record and comments were launched by Racing Twitter.

    My Internet responses on Twitter addressed the use of medication, legal and otherwise, and the fervent wish that “process” will not retard the efforts of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Act which is absolutely needed if the playing field is to be leveled.

    This issue goes beyond any one trainer.

  3. Well, the first race on the ‘Trail of broken bones’ that push three-year-old thoroughbreds to extremes is now over, finally. As I have written many times, if it’s not Baffert, then it’s Pletcher (golly, Pletcher only had four entrants in the race). Imagine this: your love of Pletcher far outweigh your dislike of Baffert.

    The Kentucky Derby, America’s race once tagged by Grantland Rice as ‘the fastest two minutes in sports (now morphed into ‘the most exciting two minutes in sports’), and a race that any serious horseplayer avoids once again bankrupted most people who bet the race.
    Who in their right mind wagers on a stampede?

    If one likes atmosphere, hats, nice ankles, and bourbon, Churchill Downs is the place to be on the first Saturday in May.

    Not much in your commentary, Mr. Pricci, on the winner (the horse who did the running, the jock gets the ink) Medina Spirit. A lot of excuses, though, were written for Rock Your World, Soup and Sandwiches, and Dynamic One (the last three finishers). I thought that good horses overcame adversity. Saint Hood, Brooklyn Strong, and Essential Quality got more ink than Medina Spirit; as you write ‘potential threats were compromised seriously or otherwise’. Not mentioned was the FACT that Medina Spirit increased his lead deep in the stretch!

    And you close with another slight of Baffert with ‘allowing another rules-breaker off the hook’ along with comments extremely negative to Baffert by complete unknowns to this website.

    Is the word ‘bias’ a good description?

    1. NYRA’s Andy Serling selected MS and the sage of speed figures, Andy Beyer, said he had Medina also. That seems to be the winning ticket, go to the front and stay there. Essential Quality can very well redeem in two weeks in B-more. Almost made sense that on the 50th anniversary of Canonero II (sold as a yearling for $1200 at the Keeneland Sales) a horse like Medina Spirit (sold as a yearling for $1000) would win the race. Contrast to Gamine who sold for 1.8m and captured the Oaks a day earlier. Medina was resold at two for all of 35k, a fraction of what many of the other runners cost. Baffert win almost a replay of Authentic, go to the front and stay there.

      1. All good points C, except that Gamine won the *Derby City Distaff. Kudos to all who picked Medina Spirit, including my good friend Paul Cornman. For them it was an against-the-bias play which I overlooked completely–my bad…

        *correction

    2. Some of this take I agree with Mr Corrow. Did not give enough credit to the horse, which was on my list Sunday to be covered in the usual Tuesday column. You can believe that, or not.

      This column was intended as an overview of the entire race and Derby scene. The whitewash by the Arkansas Racing Commission is on them, not me. Did you see the video on Paulick Report re the ARC actions? Their commentary on the matter was more detailed than a columnist’s throwaway line.

      Personally, I do like Todd Pletcher, but that didn’t stop me from calling he and John Velazquez out when their Breeders’ Cup Distaff filly which was eased right out of the gate at the public’s expense. (Also criticized the CD stewards at the time).

      Todd and I had a disagreement over that piece–“you’re entitled to write badly about me any time you wish–but as professionals we subsequently mended fences. I do not allow personalities to color my judgment when it comes to efforting the truth.

      I have no personal relationship with Mr. Baffert and, yes, I still hold the seven sudden equine deaths against him–that whitewash coming courtesy of the California Horse Racing Board.

      You didn’t note in my response to one of the Tweeters writing my continued support of federal oversight. My anti-Lasix stance is well documented, and a source of compromised relationships with more than one horseman.

      I am as biased as the next human but it doesn’t stop me from giving credit or placing blame. That’s the work of a columnist.

      So the comments of rank and file horseplayer/fans don’t count if they are not HRI regulars? I don’t think so. We give voice to all with valid comments, however empirical the evidence.

      The jock, meanwhile, won the Oaks and Derby, the latter back to back. It is my opinion that he was the difference in the Derby. It is also my opinion, having watched the Derby about a dozen times, that the best horse on the day, the one who traveled 58 feet farther than the winner, was probably best on the day–one man’s opinion.

      Other facts are Mandaloun was one-paced in deep stretch after a perfect trip, that Hot Rod had too much to overcome after early trouble, and that the winner faced only mild pressured on the pace over a racetrack in which another three-year-old, Jackie’s Warrior, won the G2 Pat Day Mile faced pressure in an opening half-mile that went in 43-and-change — and kept going!

  4. Pletcher said there is a chance Malathaat may run in Belmont. Rags to Riches beat Curlin by a head and was the last filly to win and only the third in history. When asked why he would run her there he said the purse was a consideration. Johnny V Oaks/Derby DD. Pletcher/Baffert, future HOF’er (as of Weds) and current HOF’er. Interested to read what you write tomorrow about Essential Quality. Bum wide trip and right there at the finish. O’Besos completed the Super High Five and also ran well.

  5. JP–
    There were 2 dirt “super trainers” in the Kentucky Derby Bob Baffert and Brad Cox. And Baffert won his 7th Derby with Cox finished second– just missing a massive score with the “other Cox” beating his favored entrant (an angle often seen with multiple Baffert entries). When it comes to handicapping these Grade 1 dirt races, I believe the upshot is to bet against Baffert and Cox at your own risk. And the same applies to the “super trainer” on the turf, Chad Brown.
    As a wise man recently said, “Study long, study wrong”……..so my advice is to stick to the simple “super trainer” angle!
    Chuck from Saratoga

    1. Impressive numbers for Chad Brown on the turf at NYRA tracks since 2016

      TURF at NYRA tracks 01JAN2016 to 03MAY2021; Brown Chad C

      STS 1st 2nd 3rd WIN % ITM %
      BEL 912 246 173 127 27.0% 59.9%
      SAR 529 123 107 97 23.3% 61.8%
      AQU 239 55 49 46 23.0% 62.8%

      TOT 1680 424 329 270 25.2% 60.9%

    2. Won’t argue with that approach for a second. But I hate the idea of trainer handicapping as opposed to trying to isolate the best horse. But ’twas ever thus I suppose.

  6. Thanks to this Pricci input,from now on when I read,see,hear Baffert ‘s name or his horses I will think of Bill Belichic’ s reputation as winner of several Super Bowls with shades of ‘cheating’ any way he could as long he could get away with it. With different jockeys,quarterbacks will we see them win again and again? Wanna bet against it ? Grin and bear it. ” It is what t is”,as my friends from Queens remind me so often. How much can I ,you,them argue with their succe$$ ?Next, on to the Belmont with the continual reminder from several handicapping books,tapes that who controls the early( and middle) speed,especially in a thick roster of participating horses, usually has the Andrenaline going as if going downhill. As I mention it,it Always reminds me of a friend of mine,big bettor,who likes Closers ever since that Johnny Campo s horse who came from the clouds to win a race in which my friend won ton$ of moolah. But,that was many moons ago,,and maybe,tracks are getting faster since they re better worked on,even after a rainy day. Knuckle head ! Gamblers don’t listen to Anyone!

    1. How can I ever forget when the year before,in 1980 that same character of a friend won and really hit it BIG with Temperance Hill winning by a long neck over that great Lady,Genuine Risk ? Ever seen a slim guy jump over the OTB tables and yelling in Sicilian slang,well Dominic did it,,and he had thousands of reason$ to do it when his main and Only top pick paid over $ 102 to win plus a bunch of exactas,including that same Admirable,Gutsy Genuine Risk,Won .Well,then,it Was a Risk worth taking. We’ ll both be at the Belmont and we all know what type of horses he likes,Still,esp. at that…Temperance Hill distance. A hard habit to break,handicapping, ain’t it ,as I will continually watch the board after I have made my introductory picks… Thanks!🍾🍷

  7. Serendipity,Coincience have struck again! Just noticed a recent,April 27,2021 Sports Illustrated article by Jon Wertheim,” Pleasant Colony and the Crown of Thorns”. I ll read next time I have time available but just wanted to point it out since I had mentioned that horse a few minutes ago.

    1. To various points:
      Good handicappers are often better off by not listening to anyone and follow their own research and instincts.
      The Belmont has been tactical speed for some time–earned that lesson for good when Georgie Marten made that mid-race move up the fence to upset the ;’81 Belmont with Summing.
      Or maybe this will be the year of the deep closer at Belmont Park. Not predicting, just saying…

  8. So, is that Furniture hiding somewhere under his own bedding for sale now that we’ll know how ridiculous,juvenile his boasting was after having made several big bets? Some believe that Any publicity is a good one,Not when you look like a losing ” Whale” ! Especially at his age,ACT as if you’ve done it before! Aren’t you ,Sir,too old to try to Impress? Still looking for the beams and headlights? Stay as good business Man and Not as a punk looking for attention,at any price! Your money,your ways of behaving,but still,shouldn’t you know better? Of course,thanks for the lesson that too many gamblers,of any age , need! Next time try to be a little subtle,less noise,more manly civilized,behavior,less foolishness! X me,I pass this boring Preakness,as I do most years. The Weakest link in this wonderful Horseracing chain.

    1. Tell you what, since none of us are without sin… I never met the man but I know about all the good works he does for people. Is his method a little over the top? Yes. But how he has reacted in emergencies helping all manner of people? He has a good heart and the world is a better place with him in it. The planet needs more humans like Runhappy Mack…

  9. I thank you for the very good article you have written and all of these trainers have too many drug violations, Bob thirty, another one 22 and on and on. There are so many ways to cheat, drugs from other countries that we do not have a test for. The stories are so ridiculous. a 1,000 pound animal tested positive for lidocaine from a pain patch really? I am a registered nurse also and there is no way that could happen. We are way behind in testing which I do not understand because when an overdose comes in to the ER they can test for hundreds of substances in minutes. We need to bring horse racing into the 21st century and get rid of people that cheat to make way for trainers with moral integrity and also stop fixing races with woman trainers. If anybody knew the real truth and I do because I lived on the racetrack and I saw what these people do to these defenseless animals. It is a wonder these horse don’t kill them. Kat Price

    1. Racing lacks the “want to”; states have “defunded” testing long ago in this area.

      The only last chance to save the game is HISA. Is this law capable, starting next year? We’re going to find out…

  10. The folks that run Racing have backed themselves into a corner. When they decided to make Baffert The face of their sport, they became partners in his illicit game of cat and mouse where using every trick possible to skirt the rues is the name of the game. Now, with his cheating being exposed, the same folks that have propped him up are in danger of going down with him. And that is exactly what Racing needs. Clean house. Bring in leaders who actually care about the welfare of the animals that provide the entertainment we all appreciate so much. It can’t happen soon enough.

    1. Jeff, agree with all your observations, perhaps except one. I don’t think the industry chose to make Mr. Baffert the face of the sport. He earned his way there with seven Derbies, two Triple Crowns, 221 Grade 1’s. His methods, however, leave much to be desired and administrators have enabled him by using Jordan Rules justice to adjudicate troublesome issues.

      And if your inference is to the institution of HISA, indeed, it can’t happen soon enough.

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