Welcome to this week’s edition of America’s Best Racing’s Main Track. Each week in this spot we present the most meaningful story of the past seven days, detailing a story that stands out because of its importance or perhaps the emotional response it generates.
Looking ahead, if you believe there’s a story this week that should be featured in next week’s edition of the Main Track, let us know by tweeting it to @ABRLive using the hashtag #ABRMainTrack.
As for this week’s story, it centers on the magic that only Bob Baffert can weave.
What was stunning was that McKinzie won a Grade 1 stakes at Parx Racing against some of the top 3-year-olds in training by a decisive, 1 ¾-length margin without the benefit of a race in more than six months.
That’s right. No prep races. Just works, and McKinzie turned in arguably the best performance of his career.
"He had been training really well," said Baffert, the trainer of Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify. "I always felt like he was the best 3-year-old and then he got hurt and Justify picked it up. He has come back with the time off and has responded really well. It was good to see him get back in the game. It was a pretty tall order to go 1 1/8 miles off that kind of layoff. But you can do it with good horses. I thought we had him pretty tight. I felt like he was the best horse. If you had asked me on January 1, I would have told you we were going to win the Kentucky Derby with that horse."
McKinzie’s last race before the Pennsylvania Derby was the San Felipe Stakes on March 10 at Santa Anita Park, when he finished first but was disqualified to second, suffering his first defeat after three wins to start his career.
Named after the late Brad McKinzie, the Los Alamitos executive and good friend of Baffert who passed away in August 2017, McKinzie exited the San Felipe as Baffert’s top Triple Crown hopeful, but he then suffered a hind-leg injury. Yet no sooner did McKinzie head to the sidelines than Justify emerged as the star of Baffert’s barn and ultimately became the 13th Triple Crown winner.
Now, with Justify retired, McKinzie, owned by Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman, has reclaimed his role as the top 3-year-old in Baffert’s barn. His path to that new/old role was remarkable, and one that had Baffert’s unique fingerprints all over it.
It was a victory that incorporated two of Baffert’s fortes. In four of the last five years, he has taken a 3-year-old who did not run in a Triple Crown race and turned him into a fall powerhouse, as McKinzie joined Bayern, Arrogate and West Coast before him.
Oh, and in that other year, Baffert trained Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh, who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic to become the sport’s lone Grand Slam winner.
Beyond that, there was McKinzie’s ability to fire on all cylinders after a layoff, something Baffert has mastered with his horses like few other trainers.
Most horses in McKinzie’s position would have needed a prep race, but Baffert has the remarkable ability to vigorously train his runners, then either put them on a plane or keep them at home, and have them turn in a peak effort at a time when there very easily could have been cobwebs.
He’s surely not perfect. Grade 1 winner Collected also ran at Parx last Saturday, making his first start for Baffert since January, and he finished fourth in a stakes race earlier on the card as a 2-5 favorite. Yet what stands out more was, for example, other major success stories like winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic with both American Pharoah and Arrogate off nothing but works after running them more than two months earlier in the Travers Stakes, or sending out Cupid to win the 2017 Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita off an eight-month layoff.
It is indeed a rare skill.
“When Bob zeroes in on a race with one horse he’s amazing,” said Justin Zayat, the President and CEO of Racing and Bloodstock for Zayat Stables, which bred and raced American Pharoah. “We all knew Bob wanted to bring McKinzie back in the Pennsylvania Derby and he had a laser focus on it. He mapped it out perfectly. Some people are afraid to lean on their horses, but he really trains his horses hard and he gets them ready with works that are like races. It’s unbelievable what he does. It’s a testament to how great of a trainer he is. There’s no one better at bringing them back off a layoff. When he puts on them on plane, they are really ready.”
Just as McKinzie was, which should have come as no surprise at all, considering who trains him.
Here’s some of the other noteworthy stories that made for a lively week in the U.S. Thoroughbred racing industry: