Rain dampened the best-laid plans for a big crowd on Big ’Cap day at Santa Anita, but with apologies to Al Jolson, perhaps March showers can lead to flowers that will bloom down the road at The Great Race Place.
We had visited with Tim Ritvo two days before the Big ’Cap for an upcoming feature, and The Stronach Group COO laid out his plans to put racing on better economic footing in Southern California. One prong in that attack is getting people to the track and showing them enhanced customer service to create new fans and, erhaps, owners.
It was a small gesture, but we thought a significant one, when our phone rang Big ’Cap morning and Ritvo was on the line.
“I’m calling to see if you need anything today; anything we can help you with. We’re in Suite 2 if you’d like to come by.”
Ritvo extending that type of hospitality and follow-through to someone whose bank account says he has no chance to become an owner has to bode well for moving new blood into racing’s column. Good for Mr. Ritvo, and good luck to him and to California.
Owner/trainer Mick Ruis stood in the winner’s circle, rain dampening and darkening his dress shirt, as he awaited the lengthy stewards’ inquiry that followed the pulse-quickening stretch duel between his Bolt d’Oro and McKinzie in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) on the Big ’Cap undercard. As he watched the endless replays flashing on the infield video screen of the two horses barreling down the lane trading punches (or at least bumps), Ruis radiated joy while anxiety rained down all around him.
Win or lose, his colt had proved he was back from a muscle strain and a long layoff, finishing just a head behind one of Bob Baffert’s main Derby hopefuls.
“Any time you can run within a head of Bob Baffert, it feels like you won,” Ruis said with a wide smile.
Ten minutes later the stewards awarded Bolt d’Oro the actual victory to go along with the moral one, and the Derby trail will be enriched with the presence of Ruis and his grand-looking colt this spring.
Baffert was another target of our West Coast swing, and we spent an hour with him for a profile that will also soon appear in BloodHorse, as the Hall of Fame and Triple Crown-winning trainer reflects on what it feels like to have turned 65.
As we closed our notebook and prepared to leave his barn, Baffert offered, “Want to see the Derby winner?” That’s not an offer one should ever turn down, and Baffert led us one barn over toward the stable gate and four stalls down, where Justify’s handsome chestnut head with a broad blaze greeted us.
Although perhaps jarring for fans of McKinzie, we share Baffert’s enthusiasm for Justify, a Scat Daddy colt, even though he was no more than a maiden winner at that moment. After nipping at our jackets and requiring his trainer to push him back in his stall so we could see the full measure of this gorgeous specimen, Justify went out the day after the San Felipe and won an allowance event as easily as he wanted. Justify might be a late starter for the classics, but he looks like he’s going to be a fast finisher.
While on the Left Coast we heard word, although nothing has yet been officially announced, that Breeders’ Cup will return to Santa Anita in 2019, after which it will re-visit recent successes at newbie sites Keeneland (2020) and Del Mar (2021). This seems to us a pleasing rotation for fans and sponsors alike—as long as that unreliable Southern California weather cooperates and it finally dries up out there (as we sit at home unable to negotiate our driveway after a March 12 Kentucky snowstorm).