By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
With five wins in the Kentucky Derby (and two sweeps of
the Triple Crown) since 1997, it's safe to say that no trainer in recent memory
has dominated the spring classics quite as thoroughly as Bob Baffert.
Nor does it appear that Baffert's string of success will end
anytime soon. In fact, Baffert has enjoyed nothing less than extraordinary
success with his two-year-olds this year, going 31-for-56 (55%) thus far while winning five Grade 1 races.
All told, Baffert has sent out 13 two-year-old colts and
geldings to break their maidens in 2018, giving the Hall of Fame trainer a
powerful contingent of potential contenders for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. Some,
such as Game Winner and Improbable, have already emerged as top contenders on
the Road to the Derby, while others are still lingering out of the spotlight, waiting for the right time to shine.
In anticipation of 2019, let's take a quick look at all thirteen of these runners....
This much-hyped Godolphin homebred crushed a
seven-furlong maiden race at Del Mar last month by 6 ¾ lengths, racing to the
lead through modest fractions before powering clear in the homestretch. A son
of Tapit, Coliseum has shown some quirks in the morning but was perfectly
professional in his debut and looks bound for a stakes race in the near future.
Count Di Luna showed a lot of determination in his debut
going six furlongs at Santa Anita, dueling hard for the lead through fractions
of :21.71 and :45.16 before edging clear to defeat the capable Stretford End by
1 ½ lengths. A son of Liaison bred and owned by Arnold Zetcher, Count Di Luna
is bred to excel around two turns, so it's exciting that he's already shown a
lot of potential sprinting.
An easy 5 ½-length debut win at Santa Anita signaled that
Cruel Intention is a talented prospect, and he backed up that performance with
a hard-fought victory in the seven-furlong Golden State Juvenile Stakes, in
which he and the runner-up pulled 16 lengths clear of the third-place finisher.
Cruel Intention has run exclusively against California-breds so far, but he's
run fast while doing so and should step into open company this winter.
After Dark Prince lost his first four starts on dirt,
Baffert switched to turf and dropped him in class for a one-mile maiden
claiming race at Santa Anita. The result? Dark Prince went straight to the lead
and cruised home an uncontested winner by 3 ¼ lengths. Maybe he won't wind up being a Derby contende, but his victory on turf was certainly a nice improvement off his previous form.
This son of Candy Ride is the early Kentucky Derby
favorite after compiling a perfect 4-for-4 juvenile season that included Grade
1 wins in the Del Mar Futurity, American Pharoah Stakes, and Breeders' Cup
Juvenile. He's bred to relish 1 ¼ miles and overcame a very wide trip to win
the Juvenile, so at this point he has to be considered Baffert's top Triple
...But if there's a better two-year-old than Game Winner in
Baffert's barn, it's likely Improbable, who is 3-for-3 so far with blowout
victories in the Street Sense Stakes and the Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity
(gr. I) on his record. Improbable's powerful finish in the latter race prompted
Baffert to favorably compare the colt to his 2018 Triple Crown winner Justify—very
high praise indeed!
A well-bred son of Tapit out of the graded stakes-winning
Dixie Union mare Justwhistledixie, Kingly survived a prolonged pace battle with
three challengers to win his debut sprinting six furlongs at Del Mar, an
especially impressive performance since Kingly was racing inside and never got
an opportunity to relax. The runner-up that day? Stretford End, who had already
been beaten by Baffert's Count Di Luna.
Magic On Tap hasn't breezed since the middle of
September, which is a bit concerning, but if he resumes serious training soon
he'll bear watching on the Derby trail. In his lone start to date, Magic On Tap
scored by 2 ½ lengths in a 6 ½-furlong maiden race at Del Mar, easily defeating
the future maiden winners Grey Magician and Extra Hope, with the latter going on to run third in the Los Alamitos Futurity.
He missed an expected start in the Bob Hope Stakes (gr.
III) due to an illness, which was unfortunate since he figured to be among the
favorites based off his gritty victory in a 6 ½-furlong maiden race at Santa
Anita. However, Metropol bounced back with a half-mile workout on December 8th
and should be back in the entries before too long.
After Much Better won his debut on dirt at Del Mar by an
easy 3 ¼ lengths, Baffert switched him to turf with mixed results—the son of
Pioneerof the Nile finished second in the one-mile Zuma Beach Stakes, but
trailed home last of fourteen in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf (gr. I).
Considering his dirt-oriented pedigree, I think we'll see Much Better back on
the main track—and the Derby trail—in the near future
After parlaying a decisive maiden victory at Los Alamitos
into a pace-setting triumph in the Bob Hope Stakes (gr. III), this $625,000
auction purchase stretched out in distance for the Los Alamitos Futurity, where
he set the pace and stayed on gamely to finish a clear second behind stablemate
Improbable. A son of Mucho Macho Man out of a Giant's Causeway mare, Mucho
Gusto is bred to improve with age and should make some noise on the Derby trail
Billed as one of Baffert's top prospects prior to his
debut at Del Mar, Roadster lived up to expectations with a smooth 4 ¼-length
victory over a quality field, but then disappointed when finishing a flat third
behind Game Winner in the Del Mar Futurity. However, Roadster subsequently
underwent minor surgery to correct a breathing issue, and if the surgery works
its magic, I think we'll see Roadster reemerge as major player next year.
of the Union
Like Magic On Tap, Tale of the Union has been sidelined
since the middle of December, but if he gets back on the work tab soon it's not
hard to think he'll be a force to reckon with in 2019. After all, this
$925,000 auction purchase won his debut at Del Mar by eight lengths, pulling
clear with authority to win in the manner of a very promising colt.
Which of Baffert's two-year-olds have impressed you the
most so far?
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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.