Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 3, 2013

For Bob Baffert, A Day To Remember, A Day To Forget

It is as true in thoroughbred racing as in any sport; given sufficient time the game will extract from its participants and fans the entire gamut of human emotional responses. But it is rare for any of our recreations to do so with such wrenching swiftness as occurred on Saturday afternoon at historic old Santa Anita Park. For no one was that more the case than for white-maned Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.

It was the second day of the Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s annual fall extravaganza. Fourteen stakes races run over two days, with purses ranging from $500,000 for Friday’s opening mile and three-quarters Marathon all the way up to $5,000,000 for the mile and a quarter Classic that wraps up the action Saturday on prime time television. With a total of $25 million in prize money and with all but the Marathon official Grade I stakes, the Breeders’ Cup card is always filled with the best horses from all around the globe. In the three decades since the series was founded by the late owner and breeder John R. Gaines, it has given casual fans a reason to pay some attention to the sport beyond each spring’s Triple Crown series. The four races for 2-year olds provide a glimpse of possible contenders for the following season’s Derby, Preakness, and Belmont; while the fact that the other races are not limited to 3-year olds offers a welcome reminder that not all top horses are turned out to stud once their chase of the elusive Triple Crown is done.

For Baffert, the nearly 60,000 on hand and those watching on the NBC Sports Channel, American horse racing’s richest day began in the worst possible fashion. The field of ten was on the far turn in the mile and one-sixteenth Juvenile Fillies. While sent off at middling odds, the Baffert-trained Secret Compass was holding her own, running along the rail in fourth place under the experienced hand of John Velazquez. Without warning the filly suddenly collapsed, spilling Velazquez onto the track. As the other horses in the race ran on, an outrider could be seen galloping across the track toward the prone jockey and his stricken steed.

Soon enough a medical van arrived and Secret Compass was hauled on board, while Velazquez walked under his own power to an ambulance. Shortly thereafter came the tragic news. The filly had sustained a lateral condylar fracture with dislocation, medical speak for a horrifically broken leg. The track veterinarian, Dr. Wayne McIlwraith, explained that because of a lack of blood supply to the injured area, there was no choice but to euthanize Secret Compass. “It is the worst type of injury we get, unfortunately. There is no other alternative,” said the doctor. As for the human side of the accident, while initially thought to be okay, jockey Velazquez was later found to have internal bleeding and underwent surgery to remove his spleen. It was a sad start and a reminder that horse racing remains a dangerous and too often deadly sport.

Yet, as is always the case after a horse goes down, the day went on. Under a bright blue California sky and with the San Gabriel Mountains looming as a backdrop, trainers and jockeys, owners and fans, all tried to move past the opening tragedy. Four races and a couple of hours after Secret Compass went down, thirteen horses entered the starting gate for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, the mirror image of that first race, only for colts and geldings. In this race the Baffert-trained entry was New Year’s Day, who had not raced since breaking his maiden at Del Mar in late August. The favorite was Havana, who broke from the outside but settled in nicely and stalked the early speed down the back stretch. Entering the final turn Gary Stevens, who came out of retirement this year and won the Preakness, told Havana it was time to run and the horse began to move, finally taking the lead at the top of the stretch. As they passed the eighth pole the favorite drew clear and appeared headed for victory. But New Year’s Day, no better than fifth entering the home stretch, had swung down to the rail and had a clear lane to the wire. With but 200 yards to run Baffert’s charge exploded as if shot from a cannon. With 29-year old Martin Garcia urging him on, New Year’s Day swept past Havana and won by a widening length and a half.

The win made New Year’s Day the very, very early favorite for next May’s Derby. It’s the reward for every winner of the Juvenile, and it’s logical since this race is the final major test for 2-year olds. But the fact that in the previous 29 years only Street Sense captured both the Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby is ample evidence of just how fraught with uncertainty the Derby trail can be. Still the result had to improve Baffert’s day, which got even better two races later when his favorite Secret Circle held off the charging Laugh Track to win the Xpressbet Sprint. It was Baffert’s fourth win in the short Sprint, a reminder that before he was a horse racing celebrity he started out training quarter horses.

Finally came the Classic, and what appeared to be the chance for Baffert and his followers to apply additional balm to Saturday’s painful beginning. He saddled favorite Game On Dude in the day’s final race, with the strong likelihood that a win would secure Horse of the Year honors for the 6-year old gelding. Reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan had earlier won the Mile with a furious stretch charge down the middle of the lane, staking his claim to repeat. But with six wins in a row, all of the talking heads agreed that Game On Dude could seal the deal with a seventh in the Classic.

Except that it was not to be, and the Horse of the Year Award is suddenly wide open. Front-running Game On Dude led early, and was a close third with a quarter of a mile to run. But when Mike Smith, whose 19 wins in Breeders’ Cup races leads all jockey, asked the favorite to run, there was no response. Game On Dude backed up in the final quarter, finishing a distant ninth.

The Classic was still a great race, with Mucho Macho Man edging out Will Take Charge and Declaration Of War. It was a great story for the horse, which had made a career of coming close without winning his biggest races. It was a great story for the jockey, another big win for the unretired Stevens. It was a great story for the trainer, 44-year old Kathy Ritvo, who five years ago was in a hospital waiting for a heart transplant. But for Bob Baffert and his many followers, it meant that a day that began with sadness, only to be leavened by triumph, ended with a sudden and unexpected turn to despair.

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