It’s safe to say Bob Baffert is enjoying a fantastic year.
The Hall of Fame trainer has already won 11 Grade 1 races with eight different horses. Three weeks ago, he secured a record-equaling sixth Kentucky Derby triumph with Authentic, one of three Horse of the Year contenders residing in the Baffert barn.
Baffert’s two other players for Horse of the Year honors will face off in Saturday’s $300,000 Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita Park, an important “Win and You’re In” qualifier for the Nov. 7 Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland.
Improbable (#2) has won two Grade 1 races this year. Maximum Security (#5) is the champion 3-year-old male of 2019. Their showdown figures to be among the highlights of a fantastic racing weekend.
Held at 1 1/8 miles, the Awesome Again is an eighth of a mile shorter than the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but this hasn’t prevented the Awesome Again from serving as a significant steppingstone toward racing’s year-end championship. Mucho Macho Man completed the Awesome Again-Breeders’ Cup Classic double in 2013, and Accelerate replicated the feat in 2018. Two other recent Awesome Again competitors (California Chrome, 2016, and McKinzie, 2019) have gone on to finish second in the Classic.
Certainly, Improbable and Maximum Security have the talent and potential to achieve similar success. Improbable has been in hot form this year, entering the Awesome Again off decisive triumphs in the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup and Grade 1 Whitney Stakes. The 4-year-old son of City Zip has shown improved tactical speed this season, which has helped him secure the unencumbered trips he needs to excel. A Grade 1-winning juvenile, Improbable struggled with slow starts and awkward trips in 2019, going just 1-for-7 while facing tough company. Staying out of trouble is key for this talented but tricky colt.
In contrast, Maximum Security has been a complete professional, crossing the finish line first in 11 of his 12 starts. Famously disqualified from victory in the 2019 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve after causing interference on the far turn, Maximum Security has since rattled off a bevy of high-profile victories. The son of New Year’s Day is 3-for-3 in 2020, kicking off the year with a triumph in the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup before winning the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap and Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Maximum Security was particularly impressive in the Pacific Classic. Making just his second start under Baffert’s care, Maximum Security sprinted to the front and carved out relentless quarter-mile fractions of :23.93, :24.05, :24.39, :24.13, and :24.74 to trounce his rivals by three lengths. Across the board, this effort produced big speed figures, including a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, a 118 Equibase Speed Figure, and a 106 BRISnet speed rating.
Although Improbable has posted similar numbers this season, I’m inclined to view Maximum Security as the more likely winner of the Awesome Again. Improbable has drawn a challenging post with speedy front-runners to his inside and outside; even in this small field, there’s a chance the frequently slow-starting Improbable will find himself buried behind runners early on.
In contrast, Maximum Security has drawn perfectly in post five and figures to enjoy a clean trip setting or stalking the pace. He showed in the San Diego that he’s capable of rallying from several lengths off the lead if necessary, so a fast pace shouldn’t be detrimental to his chances in the Awesome Again.
It’s also worth noting that Baffert hasn’t eased up on Maximum Security since the Pacific Classic. The bay 4-year-old has posted three fast workouts this month, suggesting he’ll be ready for a maximum performance on Saturday. With regular rider Luis Saez back aboard, Maximum Security rates as the runner to beat in the Awesome Again.
Bettors hoping to cash an easy ticket can feel confident playing Maximum Security over Improbable in a straight exacta — the payoff won’t be large, but the probability of winning is high. Bolder bettors can seek a bigger payoff by using San Diego Handicap runner-up #4 Midcourt for third place in a trifecta.
Wagering Strategy A: Exacta
$20 exacta: 5 with 2
What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 10th race, $20 exacta, 5 with 2
Wagering Strategy B: Trifecta
$20 exacta: 5 with 2 with 4
What to say at the betting window: Santa Anita, 10th race, $20 trifecta, 5 with 2 with 4
Good luck, and enjoy the race!