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What looked like the Mastery of the Derby changed to heartbreak

Mar 14, 2017 3:03 AM

Just as Mastery crossed the finish line a dominating winner of the $400,000 San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday, I said emphatically: “That’s my Derby horse!”

Unfortunately, it took fewer than 30 seconds to replace those positive thoughts with the sudden awareness that Mastery was hurt; jockey Mike Smith had jumped off the colt 50 yards after the finish to limit the apparent physical damage. Without Smith’s alert thinking, the damage to Mastery could have been worse.

In the grandstand, trainer Bob Baffert was going through even more dramatic emotions.

Baffert first thought Mastery’s winning performance validated his belief that his colt was going to be a major threat in the Spring Classics. Then, he realized something had gone wrong soon after the finish.

Soon afterward we learned Mastery had suffered a condylar fracture of the left front leg, an injury that would require surgery. On Sunday morning, Baffert sent this note to me, clarifying what is ahead for the undefeated son of Candy Ride:

“Mastery winning the way he did and then getting hurt pulling up was a total nightmare for us. I had been slowly preparing him for the Classics and knew I was dealing with a very special animal.

“It’s still hard to swallow; but, we’re totally focused on getting him the best treatment to heal him up… He looked very comfortable (Sunday) morning, bright and alert. So, he will go in for his surgery (Monday) morning to insert two screws to seal the fracture.”

Baffert then concluded his remarks with this advisory: “We simply will not know his future until at least 90 days and we can only hope he will be healthy and sound when and if we resume training during the summer.”

Here is what made Mastery’s winning effort so special: Breaking alertly in his first start since winning the Grade-1 Los Alamitos Futurity last November, Mastery beat off competition for the lead heading into the first turn, then settled nicely in front on the backstretch with a fast half mile clocked in 46.79. 

As he continued to hold a clear lead elbowing into the far turn (clocked in 1:10.48), Mastery then withstood a strong challenge from Iliad heading into the stretch while reaching the mile marker in 1:35.62, before finishing 6-1/2 lengths in front of that rival in 1:42.28 for the full 1-1/16 miles while not feeling the sting of Smith’s whip.

His victory not only earned a strong 105 Beyer Seed Figure – fastest by a 3-year-old this season – but until he pulled up with his leg issue, there seemed to be considerable room for improvement.

Although Iliad ran decently, I did not see enough to suggest he, or any of the horses who finished behind him, will be able to handle the Eastern-based Derby prospects that have run so far, or are on the mend ready to restart their campaigns.

One of those Eastern 3-year-olds who performed well Saturday was Tapwrit. The Todd Pletcher trained colt rallied strongly from more than 18 lengths behind front running State of Honor to win the 1-1/16 mile Tama Bay Derby by 4-1/2 lengths in the stakes-record clocking of 1:42.36 on a very fast track.

Tapwrit earned a good 96 Beyer Fig. for his effort, which ranks among the top half-dozen Figs. earned by a 3-year-old still in the Derby chase. It also must be pointed out Tapwrit was defeated by McCraken in the Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa last month. McCraken is approaching a return to action after suffering a minor injury that required no surgery.

Classic Empire is another top-rated 3-year-old getting close to re-starting his career. Winner last fall of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Santa Anita Park, Classic Empire has not raced in 2017. But, his performance in the 2016 BCup suggested he could be a serious Derby threat if able to come back with a solid performance within the next three or four weeks.

As it stands now, several promising Midwestern-based 3-year-olds will be running in the 1-1/16 mile Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park on Saturday. Moreover, there are eight different, very rich Derby preps scheduled to be run at the longer 1-1/8 mile distance during the next four weeks.

Among the most important of the 9-furlong stakes are these five: the Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park and Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds in New Orleans on April 1; plus, the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, Blue Grass stakes at Keeneland and Santa Anita Derby, all on April 8. Each race will award 100 Derby eligibility points to their respective winners, 40 for second, 20 for third and 10 for fourth.