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 email@example.com or 702-383-4656. Follow @mike_brunker on Twitter.
Ellis Starr’s Buena Vista Stakes analysis
Jolie Olimpica (BRZ) was undefeated in three starts in her native Brazil last year, including a win in the Group 1 Gran Prix Jockey Club Brasileiro versus males at a mile on turf. She beat 14 other horses in that field while drawing off by six lengths and earned a 109 Equibase Speed Figure. Sent to the U.S. after that win last June, Jolie Olimpica (BRZ) found herself in the barn of Hall-of-Fame trainer Richard Mandella, who took his time with the filly over the next six months. Making her U.S. debut on Jan. 11 in the Las Cienegas Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass, Jolie Olimpica (BRZ) bobbled at the start, moved up quickly to stalk the pacesetter then took over and won by 1 1/4 lengths in “ridden out” fashion with gas left in the tank, improving to a career-best 111 figure. Having already won a stakes race at a mile, there’s no question Jolie Olimpica (BRZ) can handle the trip, and as she’s likely to improve in her second race after seven months off, she should be tough to beat in this year’s Buena Vista Stakes.
Carressa, like Jolie Olimpica (BRZ), is a 4-year-old with four “A” efforts in her last four races. Stretched out to a mile (on dirt) for the first time last August, Carressa won by 4 1/4 lengths, then two races later won by eight lengths with a strong 106 figure. She bettered that figure in her first turf start last month, at this mile trip, winning the Megahertz Stakes while earning a 107 figure. In winning that race, Carressa beat Super Patriot, La Sardane, Brill and Keeper Ofthe Stars, none of which appear capable of turning the tables on this filly. Considering Carressa has improvement potential in her second turf start ever, similar to the logical improvement expected of Jolie Olimpica (BRZ), these two fillies may provide us with an epic battle in the final stages of this race.
Lady Prancealot (IRE) won the American Oaks at the end of September, earning the same 110 figure as she did two months earlier when winning the Valley View Stakes. However, it must be noted both races were for 3-year-olds and in the Buena Vista Lady Prancealot (IRE) is facing older horses for the first time. On the other hand, she’s now a 4-year-old herself, as are Jolie Olimpica (BRZ), Carressa and five of the other horses in this race. Jockey Joe Bravo rode Lady Prancealot (IRE) for the first time in the Valley View, then again in the American Oaks and has the mount in the Buena Vista. If there is a knock on Lady Prancealot (IRE) other than it being likely she will be the public betting choice and offer less value for win bets than Jolie Olimpica (BRZ) or Carressa, it is that Lady Prancealot (IRE) won the American Oaks at the much longer 1 1/4-mile distance and her record at this one mile trip is 1-3-0 in six races, suggesting this may not be her best distance.
Mucho Unusual rounds out a quartet of horses which, combined, have the bulk of the probability to win. In the American Oaks, Mucho Unusual rallied from fourth on the turn to make the lead by a head with an eighth of a mile to go, before being out finished by Lady Prancealot (IRE) and coming up a half-length short on the wire. She did win the San Clemente Stakes at this mile turf trip last July under Joel Rosario, who did not ride her in her next three starts but was in the saddle in the American Oaks and has the return call here, appearing to choose her over Super Patriot, who he rode to a runner-up effort in the Megahertz. Considering Mucho Unusual earned a 109 figure in the American Oaks and has won a race at this grade two level and distance, she must be considered as a win contender as well.
The rest of the Buena Vista field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures in similar races: Brill (101), Keeper Ofthe Stars (116), La Sardane (FR) (105), Meal Ticket (98), Muchly (GB) (100), Sold It (99), Super Patriot (106) and Tiny Tina (111).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.