Bob Baffert has another bullet in his Triple Crown arsenal.
Unbeaten champion Vindication is gone, but the trainer who has won three of the last six runnings of the Kentucky Derby has another undefeated colt in Rojo Toro, who captured the one-mile San Rafael Stakes by a length at Santa Anita on Saturday.
He thus joined Kafwain and Domestic Dispute as one of Baffert’s leading 3-year-olds. Whether this missile can hit its target and can get a mile and a quarter or not in the Kentucky Derby on May 3 is open to debate, but one thing’s for sure: Rojo Toro is one rapid runner.
"He’s one of the fastest 2-year-olds I’ve ever trained," Baffert told me late last year, after he received the $120,000 colt from Kentucky, where he won his first two races by a combined margin of nearly 13 lengths.
Rojo Toro was being pointed for the San Miguel Stakes at six furlongs on Jan. 12, but a fever forced Baffert to cancel those plans.
Baffert had no immediate race in mind for the son of Mountain Cat following his victory over stablemate Spensive in the San Rafael.
"He was a last-minute entry," Baffert said of Rojo Toro. "When Omega Code came out, I decided to run. I didn’t want to run with another speed horse like Omega Code, but with him out and the nice work by Rojo Toro before the race, I thought, ”˜Well, there are no races for him in the new condition book, and I told Hal (owner Hal Earnhardt) I didn’t know if he’d go that far, but he’s a very fast horse.’"
Jockeys named J.B. Luzzi Jr. and J.C. Deegan rode Rojo Toro in his first two races. Jerry Bailey was aboard in the San Rafael.
"I told Jerry not to move on him," Baffert said, "because if you move on him, he will go. So he didn’t move on him until he got to the three-quarter pole and he let him go. He harnessed him as long as he could. Then he just had to let him run.
"I don’t know if he’s a Derby horse, but it’s nice to have a good win like that. Going a mile, it’s hard to tell (if he’ll go a mile and quarter). But he ran pretty fast and he’s learning to relax. At least he’s getting better, because those two riders we had on him before, we just put on him because he was so wild. He was spooky and wanted to run off. When he won at Turfway, he dumped the rider (Luzzi) in the winners’ circle and got loose in the paddock for about 20 minutes and they couldn’t catch him.
"We were going to run him at Keeneland, but there’s too much going on there and if he had gotten loose, we’d never caught him. So we ran him at Churchill Downs and he beat Offlee Wild, who’s a nice horse. Then I brought him to Santa Anita and was ready to run him when he got sick (with fever), so I lost a couple weeks with him.
"I got him ready and was working to run him short, but the races weren’t filling, so I worked him a mile and thought, ”˜What the heck.’ Sometimes ”˜What the heck’ will win you a lot of races.
"All I told Jerry before the race was, ”˜Make sure you don’t get away from the pony, and when you come back, come back with the pony, because he’s a little wild.’ I don’t want anything happening to him before the big race."
HOMESTRETCH: Laffit Pincay Jr. escaped serious injury when his mount in Saturday’s fifth race, Trampus Too, clipped the heels of drifting Rainman’s Request and fell. Pincay was with his wife, Jeanine, and his family in Santa Anita’s first aid facility immediately after the mishap. The world’s winningest rider with 9,527 victories suffered a muscular contusion at the back of his neck, according to Dr. Doug Del Gadillo. Bill Spawr, a long-time Pincay supporter, was one of the first to visit the 56-year-old rider. The trainer put matters in proper perspective after his front-running 3-year-old, Our Bobby V., finished fourth in the San Rafael two races later. "My summary of the San Rafael," Spawr said, "is that Laffit’s OK."
Two-year-old champion Vindication is doing well at Alamo Pintado Equine Medical Center in Los Olivos, where the $2.15 million son of Seattle Slew is recovering from a suspensory injury. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is undergoing hyperbaric oxygen therapy, which promotes healing. Doctor are optimistic that Vindication eventually will return to the races.
Man Among Men is itching to run. Trainer Gary Mandella says the winner of the Feb. 7 Sham Stakes over touted Empire Maker has been rank in morning workouts, indicating the 3-year-old colt needs less time between races. The son of Gentlemen is scheduled to make his next start in the March 16 San Felipe Stakes. He worked seven furlongs at Hollywood Saturday in 1:25.80.