Baffert returns to winning ways with two favorites

April 17, 2001 6:38 AM
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The silver haired maestro is at it again.

After winning back-to-back Kentucky Derbies in 1997 and 1998 with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, it appears that Bob Baffert could have the two favorites in this year’s renewal.

Baffert-trained Congaree lived up to Baffert’s hype and drew away from Florida Derby winner Monarchos by 2¼ lengths under Victor Espinoza. As everyone knows, Baffert also trains Point Given who has been compared to the mighty Secretariat up to this point. The two will run uncoupled in Louisville due to a new rule change this year that all runners must run as separate betting interests.

So as everyone has been saying, there may be no reason for me to spend my hard earned dinero and make the trek to Louisville in about two weeks. From what I have been reading, Point Given is going to win the Triple Crown, and if not, Congraee will be around to pick up the pieces.

Maybe I am stubborn, but I say - NOT SO FAST!

First off, the Run For The Roses is run at a mile-and-a-quarter, a distance that none of these have attempted so far. Secondly, John Ward, trainer of Monarchos was impressed with his colt’s performance to say, "I thought Monarchos put in an outstanding effort. He was the only horse that I saw all day long that was able to close on a speed-favoring track. The stretch at Aqueduct was no place to make up ground Saturday, but Monarchos still managed to put in the closing run that he will need in the Kentucky Derby. Plus, he ran into a good horse, and let me say this, Congaree is a very good horse."

It was Monarchos first start in five weeks. Ward said Monarchos came back in good order and was even in a playful mood this morning.

Ward was not so upbeat about the finish of his other three-year-old, Hero’s Tribute, who finished seventh and last in the Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland thus eliminating him from Derby consideration.

Also in the Wood, jockey Rick Wilson, rider of Richly Blended, said that the saddle slipped up on his colt, who set the early pace in the Wood of 23 seconds and 46 seconds before giving way to Congaree. Trainer Ben Perkins Jr., did say that one-turn races look to be in the future for Richly Blended.

Over in Lexington, Jill and David Heerensperger’s Millennium Wind, a $1.2 million Keeneland September Yearling purchase, grabbed the lead from the start and never looked back, winning the Gr. I $750,000 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes impressively by 5¼ lengths. It was the second Blue Grass Stakes victory in four mounts for Laffit Pincay, Jr., racing’s all-time winningest rider.

Racing against one of the deepest Kentucky Derby prep fields of the weekend, Millennium Wind maintained a comfortable margin over Songandaprayer through early fractions of 23 seconds and 462/5 seconds, but had the margin shortened to just a head by six furlongs in 1:102/5.

However, when Pincay called on the Cryptoclearance colt through the stretch, he quickly turned back the challenge and drew well clear of Songandaprayer for the victory in 1:481/5 for 11/8 miles over a fast track. Dollar Bill, the 2-1 favorite, came flying late for third.

Again NOT SO FAST!

Let me say that there was an extremely speed-favoring bias Saturday at Keeneland. I also know that in the Florida Derby, John Dowd, the trainer of Songandaprayer, instructed Edgar Prado NOT to go to the lead as had been his colt’s running style. Dowd wanted to see if his colt could sit off the lead and still finish. Mission accomplished!

In addition, for the second straight race, Dollar Bill encountered problems, which may have ultimately cost him the win. He was bumped leaving the gate and was sixth of seven for most of the race. Invisible Ink, A P Valentine, Bonnie Scot and Hero’s Tribute completed the order of finish.

With his Blue Grass victory, Millennium Wind, who has never been worse than second, improved his record to three wins from five career starts and the $465,000 winners share of the purse boosted his bankroll to $769,920.

From Saturday’s Blue Grass, the Derby will likely draw four or five starters. Winner Millennium Wind, third-place finisher Dollar Bill, fourth-placer Invisible Ink and A P Valentine are among the prospects. A decision on runner-up Songandaprayer is forthcoming.

Finally, there was another prep down in Hot Springs country and all Mark Guidry had to do aboard Balto Star during Saturday’s Arkansas Derby was to grab the reins and hang on.

His whip? Not necessary.

His goggles? Clean as a whistle.

"Today was like a dream. Everything was perfect," Guidry said after riding Balto Star to an impressive wire-to-wire victory over 10 other 3-year-olds at rain-soaked Oaklawn Park. Balto Star, earning his Kentucky Derby ticket, covered the 11/8 miles in 1:49 over a sloppy track.

"This is a good race to go to the (Kentucky) Derby on," said assistant trainer George Weaver, subbing for Todd Pletcher.

Good because Balto Star, overcoming the far outside 11th post position and the wet track, won easily - similar to the way he blasted the Spiral Stakes competition by 12¾ lengths March 24 at Turfway Park.

This one was "only" by 4½ lengths over the late-running Jamaican Rum, who was sent off the second betting choice behind the winner. Son of Rocket was third, nearly six lengths behind Rum.

Balto Star, a dark black gelding, was a bit sluggish from the gate, Guidry said, but quickly turned to his natural speed to beat Son of Rocket and Strike and Smart into the first turn. Those two, especially Son of Rocket, had been expected to press Balto Star on the lead. Instead they settled 2-3 lengths behind down the backstretch.

At least one other Arkansas Derby participant is planning to run in the Kentucky Derby: Jamaican Rum. He trailed the field with three-eighths of a mile to go, but swung six wide and made a run to finish second.

"I have watched several races here and his race is the first I’ve seen where a horse closed from as far back as he did," trainer Jim Cassidy said.

So what does this all mean? Yes, Baffert’s duo looks tough, and I may have to change some of my strategy for the first weekend in May. But, I sure am looking forward to tasting mint juleps in Louisville soon.