The Bob and Mike Show

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Bob Baffert wished out loud Saturday in the bright sunshine that he brought five horses for Belmont Park instead of four.

Baffert’s colleagues – who collectively accounted for 12 Eclipse Awards for outstanding trainer, three plaques in the Hall of Fame and reputations among the best of their profession – probably wished he didn’t bring any.

Saturday was that kind of day for the California-based trainer, who put the strength and quality of his high-class stable on display with four wins from those four horses. The victories, worth a combined $1,387,000 in purses, were for four unique ownership groups and included the Grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap and Grade 1 Acorn.

Baffert has certainly enjoyed better and more profitable days in his Hall of Fame career. Who could forget American Pharoah’s sweep of the Triple Crown just two years ago, that first Kentucky Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm for Robert and Beverly Lewis, the second Derby the next year with Real Quiet for longtime client and friend Mike Pegram, and multiple victories in the Dubai World Cup, most recently in March with horse of the world Arrogate?

The big stage is where Baffert likes to shine the brightest and the quartet of West Coast, Abel Tasman, American Anthem and Mor Spirit put him and his team led by the tireless Jimmy Barnes in the winner’s circle again and again and again and again.

“It’s a big day, this is when you want to win,” Baffert said. “Everybody’s watching. These clients, they trust me and send me these horses, sometimes it doesn’t work out but we’re fortunate today that they’re running like they’re training. We put them on the plane, came here and they ran. I wanted to bring five, I should have brought five.”

The one he didn’t bring was Collected, winner of the Santana Mile and Grade 2 Californian in his two starts this year. 

Not surprisingly three of the winners came in 3-year-old races where Baffert excels the most, even though he didn’t run a single horse in a Triple Crown race in 2017. You need to go back to 2008 to find the last time Baffert didn’t start at least one horse in the spring classics.

Privately or publicly he makes no bones that he wished he’d been involved in the Triple Crown, hoping to add a 13th classic victory and inch closer to the modern standard set by D. Wayne Lukas and his 14 successes in the country’s biggest races.

Baffert’s strong showing, which coincided with an even bigger day for Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, started in the $150,000 Easy Goer for 3-year-olds. Gary and Mary West’s West Coast, with Smith aboard, won easily and showed he’ll be a sophomore classic winners Always Dreaming, Cloud Computing and Tapwrit will have to contend with the second half of the season.

Two races later Abel Tasman added the Acorn to her victory five weeks before in the Kentucky Oaks, benefitting from a heady ride from Smith to come up the inside and win by a length. Abel Tasman, despite being the morning-line favorite coming off the Oaks, was the one Baffert worried about the most because of her inside draw in the 1-mile Acorn. She raced wide in the early stages and around the turn before Smith, no doubt sensing he might be almost out of horse as the field approached the stretch, dove to the inside cutting the corner to win in 1:35.37.

“I did not like the post, my other horses drew great except for her,” Baffert said. “It was pretty exciting to see the quality she has. We see it in the morning, she’s just getting better and better. I’m pretty happy for her.”

Baffert said Abel Tasman, now the clear leader in the 3-year-old filly division, could stretch back out in the summer in “a race like the Alabama.”

Two wins down and two races to go – American Anthem in the Grade 2 Woody Stephens and Mor Spirit in the Met Mile – Baffert stood in the sunshine on the platform above the winner’s circle and talked about Belmont Day.

“I like bringing good horses for big races; I want to be Big Day Bob,” Baffert said. “We don’t like bringing those 10-1 shots. Somebody says, ‘you’re the favorite, aren’t you nervous?’ That’s good, I want to be the favorite. There’s room for error.”

The third 3-year-old to win was American Anthem and like his two stablemates before, the son of Bodemeiser showed he’d be one to reckon with in the Haskell Invitational, Jim Dandy and even the Travers.

American Anthem was always meant for races like that; after breaking his maiden and finishing second to Gormley in the Grade 3 Sham, he was quickly on the Derby trail. He never made it to Louisville, finishing 10th in the Grade 2 Rebel at Oaklawn Park and 12th in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, two uncharacteristically poor performances for a well-meant Baffert runner in classic preps.

 “We’re figuring him out now,” Baffert said. “We were pushing him, like going to too fast too early. Trying to keep him in the clear too early. He didn’t break well (in the Rebel), didn’t ship well. I thought he shipped well, but he didn’t.

“I really think he’s figuring it out now. After that last race when Mike got him off the pace and came running I think the horse has gained a lot more confidence off that. Today he was sitting outside, it was great and when he pushed the button he just took off. That was impressive. There’s a lot of pressure on a big day like this, the last thing you want to do is embarrass a good horse on a big day.”

Smith rode American Anthem, that victory coming two races after he put the Songbird on the lead in the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps, stayed patient when challenged up the inside by Paid Up Subscriber and Javier Castellano and didn’t ask any serious questions late to the comebacking two-time champion in her 1-length victory.

Easily the most accomplished horse on the card with 11 wins in 12 starts – the lone defeat by a desperate nose to Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff nearly seven months before – Songbird was the heaviest favorite on the day at 2-5.

“She jumped really, really well,” said Smith, sounding like a steeplechase jockey but actually meaning away from the gate. “I stayed off the fence today just because it’s her first race back and if someone wanted to get brave and move early on her I’d rather have them move on my inside so that I could wait other than them make me keep my position. After that I just hand rode her home; got a little tired late but she’s supposed to.

“I was glad (Castellano) did because it kept me running. I felt very confident that I had him. If anybody was going to get us it would have been somebody flying on the outside, but I took big peak at the teletron and there was nobody coming so I just hand rode her. … If I needed to get after her I was going to but I didn’t have to.”

Mor Spirit capped the big day for Baffert and Smith with his scintillating 6 1/4-length victory in the $1.2 million Met Mile. Sent off at 5-2 in the field of 12, the 4-year-old son of Eskendereya tracked the early pace set by Sharp Azteca before taking command in upper stretch to win in 1:33.71.

The victory was Baffert’s first in the Met Mile and Smith’s second. His first came way back in 1994 aboard Holy Bull, who passed away last week at the age of 26.

Mor Spirit collected his second Grade 1 victory, along with the Los Alamitos Futurity as a 2-year-old in 2015. Second in the Santa Anita Derby and 10th in the Kentucky Derby at 3, Mor Spirit didn’t race for nearly eight months and has gradually improved in each of his five starts since. The Met Mile marked his third straight victory, along with the Essex at Oaklawn and Grade 3 Steve Sexton Mile at Lone Star.

Baffert and owner Michael Lund Petersen, tempted by offers early in the year to sell Mor Spirit as a stallion or racing prospect, purposely chose those races after taking on better in graded stakes in Southern California to get ready for another run at a Grade 1 stakes.

“He sent me a text at the end of December telling me, ‘we’ll have fun this year,’ ” Petersen said. “I don’t know what he knows, but he knows something we don’t.”

Baffert knew Mor Spirit would run well when he put him on a plane from California to New York. He got an even better feeling when the field of 12 arrived in the paddock Saturday.

“He couldn’t have looked any better in the paddock. If it was a show he would have won best in show. He’s a beautiful horse,” Baffert said. “Michael here, I explained to him, ‘here’s what we’re going to do, we’re going to go to these tracks, I know it’s a little different way but we’re going to get to this big day here.’ It worked out. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t.”

Saturday everything worked for Baffert. 

 

Click image below to launch a Tod Marks photo slideshow from Belmont Day.

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