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Baffert’s cup runneth over with talented Triple Crown contenders

Just when you thought Bob Baffert had shown his hand for this year’s Triple Crown chase, the Hall of Fame trainer pulled another ace from his sleeve.

The latest 3-year-old to emerge from the seemingly bottomless Baffert barn is Charlatan, a first-time starter who won a six-furlong maiden special weight race Sunday at Santa Anita Park in scintillating fashion, stopping the clock in 1:08.85. That earned the colt a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, the highest run by any current 3-year-old, albeit in a one-turn race.

It also had some observers wondering if Baffert might have another Justify in his barn, just two years after that colt became the first horse to sweep the Triple Crown without the benefit of a race at 2.

It’s way too early to jump to that conclusion, given we don’t yet know whether Charlatan can handle two turns. Then again you can’t rule it out, given Baffert’s ability to get the best out of lightly raced, maturing horses when it comes to the Triple Crown.

Baffert has developed a reputation as “Mr. Triple Crown” after sweeping the three-race series twice in the last eight years and collecting 15 victories in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes. As a result, he always seems to have a deep bench this time of year. But the 2020 edition is exceptional even by his lofty standards.

In addition to Charlatan, Baffert has Nadal, winner of the San Vicente Stakes; Thousand Words, victorious in the Robert B. Lewis Stakes; Sham Stakes winner Authentic; Azul Coast, winner of the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields on Sunday; and High Velocity, third in the Los Alamitos Futurity to Thousand Words.

Nor should we forget Eight Rings, the leader of Baffert’s then-2-year-old contingent who turned in a dull effort in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s back in training ahead of a possible start in the March 14 Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park.

And being Baffert, we still may not have yet seen his entire 3-year-old arsenal.

#RJhorseracing featured races

It’s a quiet weekend on the road to the Triple Crown, so the #RJhorseracing handicappers are focusing on the distaffers — the $125,000 Downthedustyroad Breeders’ Stakes, a six-furlong dash for Arkansas-bred fillies and mares at Oaklawn Park, and the $200,000 Buena Vista Stakes (Grade 2), a mile turf race for fillies and mares at Santa Anita.

In the former, the handicapping crew is backing Sekani, the 9-2 third choice on the morning line, as the 3-year-old steps up out of state-bred maiden special ranks. They have the 5-2 favorite Bye Bye J in second and Proud Victoria (6-1) third.

Much as I’d like to take a stand against Bye Bye J, the 4-year-old making her first start for trainer Steve Asmussen appears to have these over a barrel, despite making her first start off a nine-month layoff. She is graded stakes placed and has trounced the competition both times she has faced state-bred foes. I’ll use Sekani to place and Matapan (20-1) to show.

In the Buena Vista, the crowd ’cappers are again chalk averse, backing Lady Prancealot (5-1) for the win over 8-5 morning line favorite Jolie Olimpica. They see Carressa (4-1) in the second slot.

#RJhorseracing handicapper Al Quintero gets the mic this week to explain his support for Jolie Olimpica: “Beat the Boys in Brazil in a huge field, earned a 111 Equibase Speed Figure in last and has a Hall of Fame trainer (Richard Mandella),” he wrote.

I agree with Al that Jolie Olimpica is going to be tough to beat, given that the Brazilian import broke the Santa Anita track record for 5 1/5 furlongs on the turf in her first U.S. start under only mild encouragement from jockey Mike Smith. But I’m going to try to beat her with La Sardane (12-1), who got a wide trip in the Megahertz Stakes (Grade 3) in her last start after breaking slowly and was only beaten by one length. I’ll use Jolie Olimpica to place and Carressa to show.

Mike Brunker’s horse racing column appears Fridays. He can be reached at mbrunker@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.

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