Bob Baffert has performed so many extraordinary feats of magic over the years nothing he does should ever come as a surprise. But since the White-Haired Wonder hooked up with new jockey, Garcia the Great, even he is amazed at what he and Martin Garcia have been able to accomplish.
That amazement reached a new high in the $1,020,000 Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I) July 31 as Baffert seemingly watched his streak of four consecutive Haskell victories go up in smoke when his speedy colt, Coil, broke slowly from the rail and dropped back to last in the eight-horse field, some eight-to-10 lengths off the pace. This is a horse who had been on or just off the pace in every one of his starts.
Baffert’s “trip from hell” getting to Monmouth Park was going to have a hellish conclusion. But he was forgetting Martin the Magnificent’s penchant for pulling rabbits out of a hat. And sure enough, presto chango, there was Coil circling the field like his sire, 2001 Haskell winner Point Given, and charging down the stretch to a game neck victory over 3-2 favorite, Shackleford, winner of the Preakness Stakes (gr. I).
Garcia had even amazed Baffert, who yelled over to him as he returned to the winner’s circle, “How did you do that?”
Baffert stood there, still in disbelief. “That little Mexican, I don’t how he does it. The kid is incredible. The horse is a really good horse, but Martin won the race. He does it over and over; it’s amazing.”
When Baffert told him he thought the race was over down the backstretch, Garcia put it straight and simple. “You don’t win the races back there; you win the races on this side.”
The trip from hell Baffert kept referring to began when he and owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman delayed their flight to New Jersey to watch their promising 2-year-old Drill make his career debut at Del Mar. Unfortunately, the colt finished eighth as the even-money favorite.
“We got in our (Gulfstream IV) jet and were scheduled to land in Belmar (N.J.),” Baffert said. “But the lights on the runway wouldn’t go on and we had to fly around for 45 minutes looking for an airport to land at. We finally landed somewhere in Northwest Philadelphia and then had to wait an hour and a half for the car to pick us up. We’re waiting at the airport at 3 o’clock when one of the wives says, ‘This damn horse better win.’ I have no idea where we were, All I know is that we went through five toll booths and didn’t get to our hotel until 5 o’clock in the morning. We left first-class on a G4 private jet and we arrived like gypsies. Then we discovered we were short a few rooms and we had to double up.”
But by early afternoon on race day all was back to normal, as Baffert paid his usual visit to Max’s Hot Dogs. And why not? Baffert’s record in the Haskell: four visits to Max’s Hot Dogs and four Haskell victories. Make that five for five now.
The Haskell shaped up as a classy, competitive race, headed by Preakness winner Shackleford and Belmont Stakes (gr. I) winner Ruler on Ice, who was accompanied by stablemate Pants on Fire, winner of the Louisiana Derby (gr. II). Also in the field were Illinois Derby (gr. III) winner Joe Vann, Federico Tesio winner Concealed Identity, Bay Shore (gr. III) winner J J’s Lucky Train, and Astrology, a close third in the Preakness.
Baffert, on the advice of Garcia, decided to take the blinkers off Coil, who had never run on dirt. Having now won on dirt at first asking, won without blinkers at first asking, and won coming from far off the pace at first asking, racing has no doubt found a new star.
The son of Point Given – Eversmile, by Theatrical was bred in Florida by Glen Hill Farm, who raced the colt in their name. After he finished a solid third in his career debut at Hollywood Park last October, Baffert, who beat him that day with Awesome Patriot, made an offer to buy the horse. He met Glen Hill’s price and has never regretted it.
“I bought him privately on gut feeling,” Baffert said. “I saw him in the paddock and I thought, ‘I’ve never seen a Point Given look like this.’ He was better looking than his sire. I chased Silver Charm for years and that never worked out. I chased Point Given, and immediately after we bought (Coil), I said, ‘This is going to be the last Point Given I’m ever going to buy.’
“After he broke his maiden he chipped a knee and we gave him a couple of months off. We brought him back at Hollywood on Kentucky Oaks (gr. I) Day and he ran real fast that day (earning a whopping 106 Beyer speed figure).”
Then came a win in the Affirmed Handicap (gr. III) in his first two-turn race, then a head defeat at 1-2 in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II), in which he was rank early, and then off came the blinkers in the Haskell and on to the list of Eclipse contenders came Coil.
In the Haskell, Joe Vann set the early pace, carving out fractions of :23.38 and :47.02, while being stalked by Shackleford. Pants on Fire, Concealed Identy, and J J’s Lucky Train were together right behind, followed by Ruler on Ice, Astrology, and Coil, who was sent off as the 3-1 second choice.
Down the backstretch, Garcia took Coil off the rail and settled him outside Astrology. As they swung into the far turn, Garcia began his move and it was obvious he was going to have to go very wide circling the field. But Coil kicked into another gear and quickly moved into contention at the head of stretch.
“Don’t tell me he’s going to win this race,” Baffert said to himself.
Shackleford had taken over the lead and looked strong as he turned for home, but Coil soon was right alongside him and had all the momentum after a strong :23 4/5 quarter from the three-quarters to the eighth pole.
Shackleford, however, who is known for his toughness and tenacity, fought back after Coil had taken over the lead and the two battled to the wire, with Coil winning by a neck. It was another 2 1/4 lengths back to Ruler on Ice in third. The final time for the 1 1/8 miles was an excellent 1:48.20.
“The ride this kid put on this horse was unbelievable,” Baffert said. “I told him before the race, ‘You know, you always wanted to take this horse back and take the blinkers off, I’m going to let you ride him the way you want to ride him. When he stepped back at the break and broke last, all I’m thinking is, ‘This trip from hell is not over yet.’ I was disgusted and kept thinking about the trip home. When he made that big move on the turn it was unbelievable. I was really shocked what he did today, especially beating all those good horses the way he did.”
Said Garcia, “They took a little while to break and when they did, my horse took a step backwards. I didn’t want to be up near the front anyway, so when he didn’t break sharp I figured I’d just made the one move. They were going pretty fast the first half-mile and I didn‘t want to burn my horse. I just wanted to put him where he was comfortable and happy. Plus, speed wasn’t holding today, so I wanted to be back off the pace. When he made that move at the three-eighths pole, I felt I was going to win. When I asked him at the top of the stretch he just took off.”
Dale Romans was proud of the way Shackleford battled back.
“We got a great trip,” he said. “He took the lead turning for home and dug in once Baffert’s horse came up. It looked like he was digging in very gamely in deep stretch. I thought he was going to come back and win it.”
Trainer Kelly Breen, who saddled both Ruler On Ice and Pants On Fire for George and Lori Hall, said he will continue on to the Travers (gr. I) with the Belmont winner.
“Jose (jockey Valdivia Jr.) said he was good,” Breen said. “They just kind of quickened in the third quarter and it took him a while to get going.”
Look for him to improve off this race in the Travers.
Pegram never takes any of these big stakes victories for granted, even having won dozens of them since the early days with Thirty Slews and Real Quiet.
“It never gets old,” he said. “You keep getting reminded just how lucky you are. I hooked my wagon to the right star.”
That star was beaming long after the race, still amazed at what his horse and jockey had accomplished.
“With everything,” Baffert said, “it was a happy ending.”
So, after everything, the Travers comes down to a battle of the titans – Baffert vs. Pletcher, with the 3-year-old title on the line.
We won’t go into the same song and dance again about Stay Thirsty’s oddly structured career and his attempts to get out from the shadow of Uncle Mo, who has pretty much dictated Stay Thirsty’s 2-year-old and 3-year-old campaigns. We’ll save that in case he wins the Travers, a race for which he may very well be favored. This has always been a talented horse who needed only to break free from his more illustrious stablemate.
Even after his huge effort in the Belmont Stakes, in which he battled hard along the inside to finish second, many of the experts dismissed that effort, saying it was the slop that helped him and they just couldn’t buy into him.
With the 3-year-old crop being maligned pretty much all year, Stay Thirsty needed to bring his “A” game in the Jim Dandy to silence his detractors. And silence them he did, winning by four emphatic lengths in a sharp 1:48 3/5.
He now will attempt to emulate his sire, Bernardini, who won the Jim Dandy and Travers in 2006. Javier Castellano rode Bernardini and now finds himself on his son.
There has been talk about Shackleford running in the Woodward instead of the Travers. That no doubt will depend on how the Whitney plays out. The 1 1/8-mile race on Saturday could very well catapult one horse to the top of the list for Horse of the Year honors and establish him as the early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Although the 1 1/8-mile distance of the Woodward might seem more appealing, the feeling here is that the Travers still is the logical spot for Shackleford, unless the Whitney falls apart and produces a mediocre result. We don’t see that happening, but who knows in a year like this. Shackleford has already won the Preakness at 1 3/16 miles and ran well enough in the Kentucky Derby. Although the Travers is an extra furlong, the pace likely will be significantly slower than the Haskell, in which they went the first three-quarters in 1:10 3/5. With a slower pace, Shackleford, who keeps showing he is a tough nut to crack in the stretch, could control the pace a lot better than he did in the Haskell, where he was battling every step of the way, yet still came home his last eighth in a solid :12 3/5. And you have to figure he will move forward off this race.
Of course, Coil and Stay Thirsty will relish the mile and a quarter, but if Shackleford can have an easier time of it on or near the front end in slower fractions, he could be tougher to run down. And a victory in the Travers would put him right back at the top of the 3-year-old division.
Again, the Woodward’s distance looks more to his liking on paper, and perhaps Romans likes the five weeks better than the four weeks between races, but depending on what happens in the Whitney, having tough older horses like Tizway, Rail Trip, Mission Impazible, and Friend or Foe breathing down your neck the whole way might not prove all that inviting. And if you’re going to go down fighting, it might as well be against your fellow 3-year-olds, with whom you are battling for the Eclipse Award.