By Lynne Snierson
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is loaded for bear in the two stakes on Saturday’s 12-race card at Oaklawn Park with Kentucky Derby (G1) hopeful Thousand Words in the $200,000 Oaklawn Stakes and last year’s Derby favorite Improbable in the $150,000 Oaklawn Mile.
Still, the invasion from his Southern California base could have been bigger.
“I wanted to send a lot more horses there but I couldn’t get them in so it didn’t work out,” Baffert said from the West Coast, where live racing has been shut down at Santa Anita and Golden Gate Fields, along with pretty much everything else in California due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic.
Had Los Angeles County health officials allowed the races to go on at Santa Anita, Improbable would not be heading to Arkansas as the probable third choice in a full field of 14. The son of City Zip, last seen failing to fire when finishing fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) on his home track Nov. 2 for owners China Horse Club, SF Racing and WinStar Farm, would have stayed right there for his seasonal bow in the Santana Mile on March 29.
“I had him good to go in a perfect spot (for the comeback) two weeks ago and then they closed us down. That would have been a great spot to get him ready for the Oaklawn Handicap (G2),” said Baffert, referring to the 1 1/8 mile race originally scheduled for April 18 but moved to the meet’s closing day on May 2. “He hasn’t run in a long time.”
Improbable has earned in excess of $900,000 with four wins from 10 starts but his last victory was in the Shared Belief at Del Mar on Aug. 25. If he’s to pose for a winner’s circle photo on Saturday, he’ll have to outgun proven Grade 1 competitors Tom’s D’Etat and Mr. Money, the likely favorites, and do it from the far outside post under Drayden Van Dyke. The rider is jetting in from California to reunite with the 4-year-old for the first time since the Shared Belief.
“There are a lot of horses in that race and he drew the fourteen. That horse either gets the one or he gets the outside. He’s never been a lucky horse that way. It’s one of those things,’’ said Baffert. “But his weakness has always been that he’s been standing in the gate too long. But he won’t be doing that this time. It is what it is. We just have to deal with it. Drayden knows the horse real well.”
The Oaklawn Stakes was introduced last year as the Oaklawn Invitational and offered the winner an automatic berth into the 2019 Preakness (G1). With its race-day change from May 2 to Saturday, not to mention a new name, the Oaklawn Stakes has now become a much more significant race for 3-year-olds trying to make the Kentucky Derby, postponed from May 2 to Sept. 5.
The added incentive remains an automatic spot in the Preakness (whenever that race is held). As another bonus, the top three finishers in the Oaklawn Stakes will be invited to the Arkansas Derby (G1) on May 2, and the race still carries 100-40-20-10 Kentucky Derby qualifying points to the first four finishers.
Thousand Words is poised to state his case on Saturday.
The impressive winner of the first three of four career starts, which include the Los Angeles Futurity (G2) and the Robert B. Lewis Stakes (G3), should attract plenty of action at the windows as he tries to get back on the winning track while traveling 1 1/8 miles for the first time. Last out, the son of Pioneerof the Nile ran fourth behind stablemate Authentic in the San Felipe (G2) at Santa Anita under Flavien Prat.
“His race last time just wasn’t him. He didn’t run his race. He showed a lot of speed and I might have had too much blinker on him. He was too fresh,’’ said Baffert. “Prat said he left there and got rank early so when he turned for home, he was empty. If he gets away from there and gets in a nice rhythm, the distance will be better for him. If he gets to run, we’ll find out what happened to him last time.’’
Baffert said he likes the added distance of race as he tried to come up with a plan to get his talented group of 3-year-olds to the Derby.
“I sent him up there because I thought the mile-and-an-eighth, the farther the better for him,’’ said Baffert, who also trains Derby contenders Nadal and Charlatan, among others. “This guy has no sprinter in him at all. He’s all distance. I think he’s going to get better as he goes along.”
Thousand Words, a $1 million Keeneland sales yearling purchase by Albaugh Family Stables and Spendthrift Farm, will depart from Post 4 in the field of 13 under Joe Talamo as Prat elected to stay home while practicing social distancing with his family, which includes a new child.
“If Joe gets him nice and comfortable and he saves ground around the turn there, hopefully, he’ll be all right,’’ added Baffert. “In the stakes races he won before he came off the pace, he was relaxed. He’s not easy to ride. He needs a pretty strong rider on him. We’ll just play it by ear.
“We were lucky to get Joe because he was already committed to ride a horse for Brad Cox but at the last minute, he didn’t enter him. Prat’s going to go to Oaklawn at the end of the month for the big stuff. Talamo is doing really well. I’ve used him a lot. He knows my horses pretty well and we’ve had some luck together.”
In addition to the Oaklawn Mile, which goes off as Saturday’s ninth race at 5:43 p.m. ET, and the Oaklawn Stakes, to be run as the 11th race at 6:48 p.m., the trainer’s attention will be on the 10th race on Friday’s card. That’s when the 4-year-old Ghostzapper filly Inshannity makes her first start for owner Jill Baffert.
“We’ve had her for a few years. I’ve been waiting to get her in, but I couldn’t because I’ve got all these other good fillies running,” said Baffert.
Putting horses into the right spots now requires more thought and greater effort than ever before.
“It’s ridiculous. It’s day-to-day. You can’t plan for more than 72 hours,” Baffert said.
Despite training two Triple Crown winners (American Pharoah, 2015 and Justify, 2018), he’ll cheer on his horses from a distance like anyone else as the Oaklawn races are still being run under stringent safety precautions without spectators.
“I wish I could get on a plane and go watch them run, just for some action, but I have to watch them on television just like everyone else,” he said.
Grade 1 winner Basin, dual stakes winner Gold Street and stakes winner Shoplifted represent a three-pronged attack from Hall of Famer and 10-time Oaklawn leading trainer Steve
Asmussen, who enters the race week on an uncharacteristic losing streak here after being blanked with the last 43 horses he sent out.
Bret Calhoun has two runners in the field, Mr. Big News and Digital and each is seeking his first stakes score.
Coach Bahe, Sir Rick, Flap Jack, Taishan, Something Natural, Background, and trainer Todd Pletcher’s Farmington Road round out the Oaklawn Stakes field.
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