Bob Baffert may be taking a step down from horse racing’s first Triple Crown in 37 years. But this year, as in many of the past, he still has the strongest barn in the competition. He has two of the top ten contenders for the May 7 Kentucky Derby, and nobody else has more than one.
With an easy win in the Bob Lewis Stakes, a Grade III race that’s a prep for the Derby, Mor Spirit became the west coast’s answer to Kieran McLaughlin’s Mohaymen, who ran away with the Holy Bull at Miami.
Not to overstate the significance of anything that’s happened so far. The qualifying points awarded in these G3 preps for 3-year-olds are negligible; these are the preliminaries in the Kentucky Derby season.
But with the The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports only three months away, the frisky adolescent colts have to show some maturity soon to stay on the trail to Louisville.
They have to be fast but they have to last. The Derby distance of 1 ¼ miles can be conquered only by the sturdiest of thoroughbreds, the most fragile breed of horse.
Mor Spirit looked like he was craving more than the 1 1/16 miles he covered Saturday at Santa Anita. Though previously known, uflatteringly, as “a grinder,” he turned on a burst in mid-stretch. At only the mildest of left-handed urging from big-race specialist Gary Stevens, Mor Spirit blew past I Will Score and Uncle Lino to win by 1 ½ lengths.
“I thought at a mile and a sixteenth he might be vulnerable,” Baffert said. “But he runs like his sire. I like his stride.”
Mor Spirit’s sire, Eskendereya, is not a household name because he did not run in the Kentucky Derby, and his children so far are too young to have competed in one. Had Eskendereya not suffered a career-ending leg injury, he would have been heavily favored in the 2010 Derby after winning the Wood Memorial by 9 ¾ lengths.
Baffert, who last year trained American Pharoah to the Triple Crown, may have an Almost Pharoah in Mor Spirit.
There’s more doubt about the distance potential of Baffert’s second stringer, Collected, the expected favorite at Oaklawn Park in Monday’s Southwest Stakes.
Collected won the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita at a mile, by 1 ½ lengths and pulling away. So now he stretches out to 1 1/16 miles. Baffert could have entered him at that distance in the Lewis, but he preferred not to have his two best colts butting heads, perhaps literally, for the same points.
Last year Baffert chose to develop American Pharoah in Arkansas, where the Hall of Fame trainer has won close to 50 percent of the times he’s raced. Baffert and his cohorts refer to scenic Oaklawn, near Hot Springs, as “our lucky place.”
So the fact that Collected is ushered to the backwoods – the Ozark foothills — doesn’t mean Baffert is snubbing him. In fact, the purse for the Southwest is $500,000 – more than three times what the Lewis paid.
Baffert regards Collected, who’s ridden by Martin Garcia, as a worthy Derby contender, but the concern is whether he can develop in time. He was a relatively late foal, born March 24, and he’s a few weeks behind his stablemate Mor Spirit in conditioning.
Baffert, who is horse racing’s one iconic figure with his mop of white hair, stood observing Collected in the Winner’s Circle after the Sham Stakes and said, “He looks a little heavy.”
But that was a month ago. You can expect the colt will be more fit on President’s Day than he was in the Sham. “I don’t know about the distance, but I like the way he’s training,” Baffert said before shipping the horse to Oaklawn.
Given that Collected’s sire is the sprinter City Zip, his ability to negotiate two turns is a question. If he passes that test Monday, Collected probably will advance to the Grade II Rebel Stakes, which American Pharoah won last year, and then, on Apri 16, the 1 1/8-mile Arkansas Derby, which AP also won, as his last stepping stone to Churchill Downs.
Dean Truex, a pedigree analyst and horse trainer, and an associate of Collected co-owner K.C. Weiner, said, “I think K.C. and Peter Fluor have a horse that’s bred to win the Kentucky Derby. He has obvious speed but also some stamina influences that are less visible. You have to go a few generations back. When the stamina is mostly on the mother’s side, it can be overlooked, but it shouldn’t be.”
Which may explain how Fluor and Weiner were able to buy Collected for what now looks like a bargain: $170,000 at the Ocala training sale in 2014. By comparison, Mohaymen went for $2.2 million at the 2013 Keeneland yearling sale.
“Collected has Man of War in his pedigree 19 times, a dozen times through his dam, Helena Bay,” Truex said. “He also has Secretariat in his female line. Helena Bay’s mother, Josette, is inbred to Northern Dancer and Ribot, two of the greatest thoroughbred sires ever. Going five, six, seven generations back, it’s one of the most solid Derby pedigrees I’ve seen in recent years.”
Fluor and Weiner are Houston oilmen who pioneered in developing the Eagle Ford shale in south Texas. In fact, the Sugarkane Field in Karnes County, Texas, was named for Weiner, whose first name is Kane.
With the plummeting of oil prices during the past year, Fluor and Weiner curtailed their oil exploration and began exploring the path to the Kentucky Derby. In Baffert they have a navigator who’s won America’s most renowned horse race four times. Mor Spirit is currently his No. 1 threat, but Collected could catch up by the first Saturday in May.