by Robert Boswell
Back on March 29th we covered the three Mikes—Matz, Maker, and Harrington—and their unlikely, simultaneous positions at the top of the 3-year-old horse racing world (see story here). But a month later, things have settled down and order has been restored. Perennial division leaders Todd Pletcher and Bob Baffert went from nowhere to be found, to having at least one very solid shot apiece at crossing the wire first on Saturday and renewing their East Coast/West Coast rivalry yet again.
At 59 years of age, Baffert hails from a different generation of trainers than Pletcher, who will be 45 shortly after the conclusion of this year’s Triple Crown. Though it seems like he brings California’s best hope to Churchill every May, the most recent of Baffert’s three Kentucky Derby (GI) victories came in 2002 with War Emblem. Each time a Baffert charge has worn the roses, he has also gone on to wear the Black-Eyed Susans. None of the three—he won consecutive runnings in ’97 and ’98 with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, respectively—was able to stay the mile-and-a-half trip of the Belmont and complete the Triple Crown. He came close enough to taste it in ’98, but Victory Gallop nabbed Real Quiet in the final stride to crush the hopes of virtually everyone involved in racing in any capacity, except for Victory Gallop’s connections.
Similarly to Baffert, Pletcher won his first Kentucky Derby at 43, but the difference is Super Saver in 2010 is his only win to date. He saddled 23 losers before he finally got a win with his 24th. It’s interesting to note that he also trained heavy favorite Eskendereya that year, but the colt was retired a week before the big race due to a leg injury. Add that to the defections of Uncle Mo last year and Algorithms this year, and that makes three straight years that Pletcher has lost his most promising 3-year-old before the first Saturday in May.
Pletcher’s best hope this year lies with undefeated Gemologist, who looked a charging Alpha in the eye late in the stretch and re-rallied to take the Wood Memorial (GI) in his last start. Many looked on with furrowed brows when Gemologist was entered in an Allowance race at a mile for his 2012 debut, after capping his 2-year-old campaign with a victory over Churchill’s main track in the Kentucky Jockey Club (GII). He ended up winning in impressive fashion and with all the graded stakes earnings eggs in one basket, Gemologist took the Wood in his final prep. The only colt to enter the race undefeated, Gemologist will likely be third choice, while Union Rags and Bodemeister vie for favoritism.
Until three weeks ago, the leading horse in Bob Baffert’s stable was Secret Circle. After winning the inaugural Breeder’s Cup Juvenile Sprint, the son of Eddington won the first two legs of the Oaklawn 3-year-old series, the Southwest (GIII) and the Rebel (GII). He took a back seat in the Arkansas Derby (GI) to barn mate Bodemeister, who ran the field off their feet in front-running style. Suddenly, Baffert goes from under the radar to possible favorite with the very talented and lightly-raced Bodemeister. The colt by Empire Maker has raced four times, all since the start of the year, which means he will attempt to be the first Kentucky Derby winner since Apollo in 1882 to not have raced at 2. At the end of March is unrecognizable chaos with abnormal names in front. A few short weeks and a few GI preps later, we can all breathe more easily, as two of the top three betting choices will belong to Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher.