Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 8, 2020

The Breeders’ Cup Didn’t Need Baffert’s Big Day

As major horse racing events go, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, fourteen races run over two days in late autumn, designed as a rich season-ending showcase for the very best thoroughbreds in the world, is still a precocious child. After all, the Belmont Stakes, the oldest of the three races that comprise the Triple Crown, was first run in 1867, with the Preakness and Kentucky Derby following in 1873 and 1875, respectively. The Gold Cup, the two-mile-plus marathon that is the feature attraction of each year’s Royal Ascot meet in England, has been held since 1807. With a history that traces only to 1984, the story of the Breeders’ Cup is little more than a short story compared to the rich sagas of these and other notable races in a tradition-bound sport.

Perhaps that’s why the late John Gaines, the thoroughbred breeder and owner who wanted to boost his chosen sport, encountered so much resistance when he first proposed the idea at the 1982 Kentucky Derby Festival awards luncheon. The pet food heir realized that interest in racing was steadily decreasing, and that for most casual fans the only races that mattered were the three comprising each spring’s Triple Crown. Gaines saw a multi-race festival held late in the year as a way to make those fans aware that there was much more to the sport than just the Derby, Preakness, and Belmont.

Tradition can be a strong roadblock to change, but in sports, as in life, money has the power to overcome many obstacles. As the Breeders’ Cup quickly grew from eight races on a single day to its current format, with $28 million in purses including $6 million for the mile-and-a-quarter Classic, resistance quickly turned to enthusiasm. The clamor to participate from horsemen has led to the creation of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, in which the winner of more than eighty races around the world, from January through October, automatically qualifies for one of the Breeders’ Cup stakes races.

Despite all that, racing remains on the fringe of most sports fans’ attention, a fact that made the lead storylines of this year’s Breeders’ Cup, run at venerable Keeneland Race Course in Lexington, Kentucky, so very complicated. The good news was that the event was held at all, no small feat during the pandemic. COVID-19 turned the 2020 racing calendar on its ear, with the Belmont Stakes run as the first Triple Crown race rather than the last, back in June, just a couple weeks later than originally scheduled. But then there was a gap of nearly three months until the Kentucky Derby, which turned several summertime races that normally come after the Triple Crown in Derby preps. The Preakness, in turn, wasn’t run until early October, pushing it up against preparations for the entire Saturday Breeders’ Cup card, for which three-year-old’s are eligible. Yet after all that disarray the two days of racing came off as planned, with even a smattering of fans allowed into the stands.

But if the coronavirus had a big impact on horse racing’s schedule, the sports’ longstanding problems proved immune to the disease. In March, just as the first wave of the pandemic was gathering force, more than two dozen trainers, veterinarians, and drug dealers were indicted by a federal grand jury, accused of participating in a wide-ranging scheme to dope horses and cheat bettors. The most notable name on the list was Jason Servis, trainer of Maximum Security, the horse who had been first under the wire at the 2019 Kentucky Derby, only to be disqualified for interfering with other horses in the stretch.

Fast forward to November, and Maximum Security was at Keeneland, in the field for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. By itself, the presence of the horse would have been no more than a mildly uncomfortable reminder of its previous tie to Servis, but Maximum Security’s connections had chosen Bob Baffert as the four-year-old’s new trainer. Baffert is quite possibly the only person in horse racing immediately recognizable to most sports fans, thanks in arguably equal parts to his enormous success as a trainer and to his shock of snow-white hair, usually found directly above an electric blue suit. The former Servis-trained mount was just one of three horses Baffert saddled for the Classic, along with Improbable and Kentucky Derby winner Authentic. He also sent Gamine to the post in Saturday’s first race, the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint.

Baffert began his training career on a part-time basis while still in college, and in 1976 he was called before California regulators for doping a horse. In an early autobiography he wrote that he had done so out of ignorance and desperation. Without dwelling on how exactly those two coexist, the incident was largely forgotten as Baffert became his sport’s most decorated trainer. But now, having trained Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify, and with sixteen wins in Triple Crown races and fifteen more at previous Breeders’ Cup weekends, everything Baffert does is in the spotlight. And this year, when horses in his barn have failed drug tests four times in the last six months, the glare has been harsh.

All of which made it seem almost inevitable when Gamine, whose win at Oaklawn Park in May was set aside because of one of those four bad test results, overtook Serengeti Empress with a stunning burst of speed in the stretch and won her race by six lengths. So in turn, it came as no surprise when Authentic, the third choice of bettors, broke sharply from the gate to claim the lead in the Classic, and then spent the rest of the race daring any other contender to come and catch him. There was a moment at the top of the stretch when it looked like that might happen, but Authentic found another gear and pulled away to win by two and a half. Baffert just missed a Classic trifecta when Improbable finished second and Maximum Security fourth.

The NBC coverage and most of the media reporting after the race focused on jockey John Velazquez, who for all his many accomplishments had never won the Classic. Even Joe Drape in the New York Times, one of the most vocal and frequent critics of Baffert, chose to write mostly about Velazquez. But that left an “elephant in the room” feel to the stories. To be fair, Baffert’s violations don’t approach the premeditated larceny of which Servis and his fellow conspirators stand accused. But they are not minor, and, obviously, they are not isolated.

Early in the week Baffert released a statement saying he would “do everything possible to ensure I receive no further medication complaints,” and detailing plans to hire a staff veterinarian whose sole job will be ensuring rules compliance across the massive operation that is Baffert’s training empire. Still, the one certainty is that for horse racing, the weekend’s story would have been so much simpler, and so much more positive, had it been almost any other trainer cheering his horses home in the Filly and Mare Sprint and especially in the Classic. Only time will tell if Bob Baffert has really learned that being the poster boy for an entire sport means being so much more than just a pretty face.


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