Archive for Bob Baffert

2014 Big Cap Showcased Old Warriors

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Eric Mitchell of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Dude the Redeemer

God love the seasoned warriors; the ones who rise up and reclaim glory in stunning fashion when everyone else has begun writing them off.

During the Sochi Winter Olympics, Austrian skier Mario Matt, two months shy of his 35th birthday, handled a tricky slalom course on challenging soft snow to become the oldest Alpine gold medalist in Olympics history. The course was so tough—termed brutal by some—that five of the eight top skiers from the first of two rounds failed to finish the course.

Matt’s experience, talent, and will to win allowed him to shine against some of the world’s most talented and much younger skiers.

“He’s a tremendous competitor, a game-day guy,” said U.S. men’s head coach Sasha Rearick.

Game On Dude gave racing the same type of performance March 8 in one of the most exciting Santa Anita Handicaps (gr. I) seen in many years.

Santa Anita Park is home base for the 7-year-old son of Awesome Again, but the Southern California track has been the site of as much heartbreak as triumph for him. Just four months ago Game On Dude was favored to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) after a sterling run of five consecutive graded stakes victories, including a 73⁄4-length romp in last year’s Big ’Cap. The gelding, however, finished ninth in the Classic, 11 lengths behind winner Mucho Macho Man and nosed-out second Will Take Charge. Game On Dude had been the favorite in the 2012 Classic, also at Santa Anita, and finished 15 lengths back in seventh.

The Dude ended last year with a good second to Will Take Charge in the Clark Handicap (gr. I), so a strong start this year would have restored the faith of many. But that didn’t happen. Instead, Game On Dude finished fifth in the grade II San Antonio Stakes against much softer competition than he would face in the Big ’Cap. The only other graded stakes winners in the field were Blueskiesnrainbows, who had just won the grade II San Pasqual Stakes, and Willyconker, who had won the grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile Stakes in 2012 but had not won or placed in a stakes all last year.

So the speculation began. Had the Dude lost his edge?

Trainer Bob Baffert took the heat for the San Antonio loss, saying he didn’t have Game On Dude prepared. Then he stewed over the naysayers.
“Bob’s proud of Game On Dude,” said jockey Mike Smith. “He’s like family to him. When you knock him, you’re walking on the fightin’ side of Bob, I guess, like it says in the old country song that Merle Haggard used to sing.”

The Big ’Cap wound up being the perfect stage for redemption: a rematch with Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge at Santa Anita along with the top three finishers from the San Antonio—Blingo, Imperative, and American Blend—and grade II winner Hear the Ghost from the always dangerous barn of Jerry Hollendorfer. The doubt hanging over Game On Dude made him the third choice in the field; the first time he had not been the post time favorite in 15 starts.

The Dude was ready, however. Smith took him right to the front and let him roll through sharp fractions of :22.91, :45.39, and 1:09.39, a brisker pace than what unfolded had when Game On Dude ran head-to-head with Blueskiesnrainbows in the San Antonio. Heading into the second turn, the fans got the showdown they’d been hoping for with Mucho Macho Man at Game On Dude’s right shoulder and Will Take Charge just outside of Mucho Macho Man.

“The stars are all aligned,” said track announcer Trevor Denman.

This time the Dude’s talent and will to win were unassailable. Mucho Macho Man faded and Will Take Charge was held at bay by 13⁄4 lengths. The Dude trifecta was priceless: He made history by winning his third Santa Anita Handicap, he broke the stakes record with his final time of 1:58.17, and he struck dumb his critics.

“It’s an emotional win,” Baffert said afterward. “It kills me when they knock on him, but we came in quiet and that’s the way I like it. We came in under the radar, and we were ready for them.”

The Big ’Cap was an important race for the sport as well. A compelling handicap division allows fans to make a connection with top horses and gives a chance for rivalries to develop. Keep putting such compelling contests on TV and perhaps Thoroughbred racing could start to savor some redemption of its own.


Paynter Looks To End His Career With the Perfect Finish

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Bob Ehalt of…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Paynter Looks For Hollywood Ending

Hollywood is the place where dreams or storybook tales can come to life.

That’s why it’s so fitting that on Nov. 2 a horse named Paynter will run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita, a track within a relatively short driving distance of Tinseltown — traffic permitting, of course.

The story of Paynter belongs in Hollywood. Even now, when the events of his tumultuous past year and a half have been widely celebrated, they seem more fiction than fact.

Far more absurd is the notion — about a year removed from an illness that nearly claimed the life of the Zayat Stable colt — that he could beat the nation’s best horses in the year’s richest race, the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Then again, it’s all taking place in the shadow of Hollywood.

“This could be the biggest fairy-tale story anyone could ever imagine,” says 21-year-old Justin Zayat, son of Paynter’s owner, Ahmed Zayat, and racing manager for his father’s stable.

Go back to late summer of last year, though, and this heartwarming tale seemed certain to be written as a tragedy.

At the time Paynter was making a big name for himself. In just his fifth career start, he finished second by a neck in the Belmont Stakes. Then on July 29, he won the Haskell by nearly four lengths and was poised to fill the leadership void in the 3-year-old ranks caused by the sudden retirement of I’ll Have Another.

Soon thereafter, however, Paynter was diagnosed with colic and then laminitis — two potentially fatal diseases — as an army of fans used social media like Twitter and Facebook to express their support for him. It seemed a long shot that he would survive, and preposterous that he would ever race again. But before the year ended, he was back at trainer Bob Baffert’s barn.

“The fans have been there for him every step through the process,” Justin Zayat says. “That’s what kept us going during the low days. It’s just unbelievable, with the tweets, the messages, the postcards we get. Every one of them counts.”

Paynter’s comeback started with a win in a June 14 allowance race at Hollywood Park. A runner-up finish in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar followed, but a disturbing last-place finish in the mud in the Grade 1 Woodward at Saratoga prompted concern that too much might have been asked of the 4-year-old colt.

A solid second in the Awesome Again — Santa Anita’s steppingstone prep for the BC Classic — dispelled those thoughts. Though he was beaten 4¼ lengths by Mucho Macho Man, the runner-up in last year’s BC Classic and a top contender in this year’s race, Paynter endured a wide trip that enhanced his performance and punched his ticket to the Classic.

“He’s doing fantastic. He should move forward off a good effort in the Awesome Again and is poised for a big race,” Justin Zayat says. “From Day One in bringing him back, our goal was the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile would have been easier, but Paynter gets better the farther he runs. He’s a classic horse. He lost the Belmont Stakes by a neck so a mile and a quarter should be no issue for him. I think he’ll relish the mile and a quarter.”

While destiny would seem to be aligned with the charismatic Paynter, victory will not come easily for him.

His rivals in the Classic include leading Horse of the Year contender Game On Dude, plus last year’s BC Classic winner Fort Larned. Older stars Ron the Greek, the Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and Flat Out plus 3-year-old stars Palace Malice and Will Take Charge add even more quality to the sport’s deepest and most talented field of the year.

Were Paynter to beat all of them, after all he has endured, it would produce the kind of moment that would be fondly remembered for years to come.

“If he could win, it would be great, not just for my family, but for the whole sport,” Justin Zayat said. “It would be a great story, like when Zenyatta won the Breeders’ Cup Classic [in 2009]. I was there at Santa Anita when she did it, and the stands were shaking. It was the craziest feeling I’ve had in my life, but if Paynter wins the Classic, it has the potential to match that.”

Beyond that, it would be a perfect story for the folks in Hollywood.


Steward’s Transparency After Controversial Big Cap Best Call of All

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Nick Kling of The Troy Record…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

Time for Transparency

The 74th running of the Santa Anita Handicap will not be remembered because it was won by a great horse. Nor will it go down in history because of a track-record time. What makes last Saturday’s race notable is the controversy surrounding the outcome.

The short version is this. Game On Dude, Twirling Candy, and Setsuko entered the stretch of the one and one-quarter mile classic in a virtual line. A combination of jockey actions and tiring horses initiated chain-reaction bumping. As a result, favored Twirling Candy surrendered in upper stretch, while the other pair engaged in a slug-fest to the finish line. Game On Dude won by a nose, earning a Grade 1 victory for himself and $450,000 for his connections.

The Santa Anita stewards hung up the inquiry sign and took twelve minutes to determine there would be no disqualification. That decision ignited a controversy and may be challenged on appeal by the connections of Setsuko.

Nevertheless, whether the non-disqualification was correct is not of immediate relevance. What is important is what the three stewards did in the aftermath. They talked about what they had done.

On Sunday, Daily Racing Form (DRF) reported comments made by the stewards, describing their thoughts in reviewing the inquiry. DRF also reported the stewards had voted 2-1 to keep the result as it stood and not disqualify Game On Dude. Included was the name of each of the stewards and how they had voted.

Here is an example. Steward Scott Chaney said, “We held (Setsuko) blameless, and he was clearly interfered with. So the question was, who’s to blame – the inside horse (Game on Dude) or the middle horse (Twirling Candy)? (Twirling Candy) initiated contact. Our determination was (Game on Dude) maintained a straight course.”

Steward Kim Stanley saw it differently. She said, “Twirling Candy and (Game on Dude) I felt had equal contact, and (Setsuko) was the one that got bothered. I think they came in, and out, equal amounts and they bumped into (Setsuko).”

DRF reported, “Chaney and (steward Tom) Ward voted to make no change, while Sawyer argued for a disqualification.”

Transparency like this is rarely seen in Thoroughbred racing. With occasional exceptions, stewards at most venues have had a simple philosophy regarding the public’s right to know — ‘Tough luck, sucker.’

Despite being stonewalled time and again, bettors and horsemen have continued to clamor for accountability. In this era of open government and unfettered information, they say, it is unconscionable Thoroughbred racing hides decisions which determine the outcome of millions of dollars risked by the public.

New York racing took a baby step in the right direction in 2010. Stewards at New York Racing Association (NYRA) tracks began to post a brief, cryptic description of some of their decisions. Here is an example of a recent posting, which I found at the ‘Steward’s Corner’ link on the NYRA website ( It said:

“RACE 10: Jockey objection for alleged interference in the deep stretch run the #8 Norman Asbjornson (J Pimentel) against #5 Stay Thirsty (R Dominguez). The #8 claims that the #5 drifts in, causing him to alter his course. After reviewing the films the race is official as is.”

To be fair, there have been some NYRA stewards’ postings with more detail. However, I have yet to see one which itemizes how the stewards voted, by name or otherwise, nor any elaboration of why or why not a decision was made.

You might ask why this is important. That’s easy. Many incidents are not cut-and-dried. There can be issues with camera angles, jockey actions and intentions, whether a horse was tiring or had equipment problems, and the like.

I know of an incident at Saratoga last summer where a non-disqualification inflamed bettors needlessly. The jockey on the affected horse believed his mount was out of gas and I strongly suspect that’s what he told the stewards. If the public had been so informed, some of their ire would have been quelled.

There can be a whole host of reasons why something happens. Less debatable is the impact of the stewards’ decisions on bettors, owners, and trainers. No matter how they rule, a large number of people are going to be upset. When evidence is razor thin, as in the Santa Anita Handicap, tempers flare.

Nevertheless, the uproar at Santa Anita would have been far worse without the willingness of the California stewards to discuss their reasoning.

After watching the head-on replay several times, I concluded the stewards made the wrong decision. After reading Cheney’s comments I went back and looked again, this time trying to draw a mental line of the path being followed by each horse. I discovered there is merit to Cheney’s statement Game On Dude held a straight course. I may still believe a disqualification was warranted, but at least my room for doubt was expanded a notch or two.

There is a procedural difference between California and New York racing. Santa Anita stewards are state employees. A single body can determine their work rules. Individual New York stewards are selected by three different bodies: the state racing and wagering board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club.

Nevertheless, to my knowledge, there is no statute stopping the state racing board from directing the stewards to issue more detailed public reports. I applaud the board, NYRA, and the Jockey Club, for doing something last year, but the time has come for more.

If members of the state legislature voted on issues of public spending and hid their votes it would be a scandal. Why, then, should racetrack stewards be allowed to adjudicate a billion dollar industry in secrecy?

New York bettors and horsemen should no longer be treated like mushrooms — covered up and kept in the dark.

Double The Purses; Record Wagering…Hoosier Park Clobbers Turfway Park!

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Christina M. Wright of The Herald Bulletin…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!


ANDERSON, INDIANA — Horse enthusiasts were lookin’ at the track, partly because Hoosier Park got Lucky.

Lookin At Lucky, that is.

The first big-name race horse at the Hoosier Park Racing and Casino brought in big crowds and bets at Saturday’s 16th Indiana Derby, despite the dreary day. It’s a success that the park hopes to continue.

“We really accomplished a new level of respect for our racing product today,” said Jeff Smith, general manager of racing. “We’ve shown the growth in quality of our fields, and we just expect it continue to grow.”

According to Smith, the park broke an all-time record for the number of wagers levied in a single day at 2.7 million, up from 1.3 million last year. The previous record was nearly 2.6 million wagers in 2005.

Smith said the race was broadcast on more than 500 outlets, including some in California and a major racing network.

Much of Saturday’s success was attributed the fame of Lookin At Lucky, who brought national attention to Saturday’s race. The single Indiana Derby race brought in about 848,010 wagers — more than double of the 338,448 for the race last year, according to Smith.

“He’s the all-out favorite,” said Chad Beeman, of Muncie. “If you look at everything, it’s almost an obligation to bet on him.”

Since the 3-year-old colt was favored to win 9-to-1, why did so many people get excited about him racing?

“People like to have a horse to root for, especially if he’s a really good horse,” said Vickie Duke, who races quarter horses she raises in Richland.

But not everyone was certain that Lookin At Lucky would pull off the race, since the track, after a morning rain and continuous drizzle, was decidedly muddy, said Andersonian Jennifer Welch.

Welch’s niece, 17-year-old Katy Powell, bet on Indy Bull for other reasons. Indy Bull chances were predicted to be second to worst just before the race.

“The bigger the odds, the more the money,” she said.

Welch bid on the favorite of the day, however, because her 7-year-old son, Brandon, enjoys watching the colt run.

As the race of the day began, crowds gathered near the track. Inside the covered viewing area, onlookers craned their necks at the televisions.

“It scared everyone that he stayed last for so long,” Duke said.

But, as the horse pulled ahead, the crowd held its breath and then exploded when Lucky crossed the finish line in first place.

“That horse just wants to win,” said trainer Bob Baffert, jockey Martin Garcia standing next to him with mud covering half of his face.

Kentucky, the home of horse racing, is not far away, yet Smith said he believes Saturday was a kickstart for Indiana racing to take the lead.

“We’re just thrilled to enjoy such a big day like this, and it’s great that all this is happening right here in Anderson,” he said.