This year’s Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes seemed sort of strange. There was something missing, or was it someone?
You have to go back to 2008 for the last time that racing’s most recognizable figure, Bob Baffert, did not have a horse in the first two races of the Triple Crown. He had a horse, one that might currently be one step from Baffert’s second Triple Crown if an injury hadn’t taken Mastery off the Derby trail.
Yet, Baffert’s barn is hotter than ever. Cupid won the Gold Cup and Danzing Candy won the Lone Star Handicap last weekend.
Abel Tasman won the Kentucky Oaks and Mor Spirit won the Steve Sexton Mile a month ago.
Collected won the California Stakes in late April. All were graded stakes wins bringing more than $1.2 million in first-place purse money.
But on this slightly fog-shrouded morning, the talk was about another of Baffert’s stars in the making, a 5-year-old Argentine-bred mare named Vale Dori. She has won six in a row and seven of nine since Baffert got the horse on U.S. soil.
She is running Saturday in the embarrassingly small, but loaded $400,000 Grade 1 Beholder Stakes at Santa Anita. It will be the eighth race in a nine-race card, with post time around 4:30 p.m.
It’s the closest thing to a match race that you can get with only two other horses in the race. But both are Eclipse Award winners in Stellar Wind and Finest City. Faithfully, also a Baffert horse, and Show Stealer, running for Art Sherman, scratched Friday.
“She’s stepping up in class now with [Stellar Wind],” Baffert said. “It’s unusual to see two champions running up against each other. But this could be a coming-out party for her.”
Horses coming from the Southern Hemisphere have a built-in birthday disadvantage and it takes a while for them to catch up. In the U.S., for racing purposes, every horse turns a year older on Jan. 1. In the Southern Hemisphere, it’s Aug. 1. Vale Dori was born July 27 and took advantage of the caveat that if you are born in July but conceived no later than Aug. 31 of the previous year, you get counted on the next year.
But when you go north and cross the equator, U.S. rules apply and you are not grand-sired in on the August rules.
“She’s getting older now,” Baffert said. “She was six months behind but now she’s getting better and catching up.”
Jockey Rafael Bejarano, who has ridden Vale Dori to four of her wins, has to contend with breaking from one hole, the small field, and a mare that’s not the best in the gate. However, the load will be quick.
“When it’s a small field it’s a little more difficult,” Bejarano said, explaining that a normal race strategy has to switch to almost a match race play with so few horses.
“If I have a good break, I’m going to go for it,” Bejarano said. “And after that I’ll just see if there is speed on the outside. I’m just going to play it by ear.”
Both Baffert and Bejarano described Vale Dori as a handful, and not necessarily in a good way.
“She’s a very special horse, but she does not like you to touch her head,” Bejarano said. “She kind of freaks out. You have to be as quiet as you can in the gate or she can flip out. You need a light hand with her. But after she breaks she’s very easy to ride. And she always tries hard.”
Baffert reiterated the head-touching phobia and some other characteristics.
“When I got her she was a little bit flighty,” Baffert said. “But she’s getting a little bit better. She’s always been a good-feeling filly. But I was always afraid to ship her. I do not know how she would be handling the ship.”
Vale Dori did log some frequent-flier miles before she came to the U.S., running two races in Argentina and two in Dubai. Once she came stateside, she hasn’t left Southern California.
The mare has absentee but powerful ownership, as she belongs to Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum, both a politician and royalty in Dubai. His cousin is the ruler of the United Arab Emirates.
“Once you’re in a position where the owners let you manage them, it makes my job so much easier,” Baffert said. “I don’t have that added stress when someone is leaning on you, it makes it hard to do the right thing. … The clients I have right now, I really enjoy them and they are having fun.”
It’s all part of what makes Baffert a great trainer. And by his barometer, he’s getting better, which is bad news for other trainers.
“I think I’ve become a better trainer and manager of horses than I was five, 10 years ago,” Baffert said. “I don’t mind taking a shot once in a while, like I did last week [when he won with Cupid off an eight-month layoff.] Sometimes it’s going to work. But I’m not afraid to get beat. You can’t be afraid of that.”
Baffert is having another sensational year. He doesn’t have a big barn by comparison, just a high-performing one. He has a remarkable 34% winning average with only 32 starts. The trainers at the top of standings have started horses at least 70 times. He’s in the money two out of every three times.
Saturday’s race could launch another superstar if she can challenge and even beat the two more decorated horses.
If not, you know she’ll finish in the money.