For the past six months, the news from the barn of Hall of Famer Bob Baffert has been divided between champion colt Game Winner and Grade 1 winner Improbable. With the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve now less than one month away, there seemed little doubt that one, if not both, would make it to the starting gate the first Saturday in May.
While both are still on track for the Kentucky Derby, Baffert’s hand for Churchill Downs became even stronger on the afternoon of April 6, when Speedway Stable’s Roadster jumped up with a massive late run to deny Game Winner by a half-length in the $1 million, Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at Santa Anita Park.
In what was the most important test of his career so far, the Quality Road colt earned his first graded stakes win and racked up 100 qualifying points towards the Kentucky Derby leaderboard, currently good for fourth place. Runner-up Game Winner picked up 40 points to bring his total to 85.
Bred in Kentucky by Arthur B. Hancock III's Stone Farm – who has an illustrious history of breeding Kentucky Derby winners like Gato Del Sol (1982) and Fusaichi Pegasus (2000) – Roadster made brief waves at 2 when he finished third to Game Winner in the Sept. 3 Del Mar Futurity, only one start after breaking his maiden by 4 ¼ lengths at the seaside track.
Sidelined for almost five months following surgery to repair an obstruction in the colt's throat, Roadster returned to win an allowance optional claiming race March 1 at Santa Anita. Baffert decided it was time to step the gray 3-year-old back up in class and see if he was good enough to earn himself a spot in the 145th Kentucky Derby.
With jockey Mike Smith in the irons – who piloted Baffert protégé Justify last year to a win in the Santa Anita Derby before moving on to Triple Crown glory – Roadster was pitted against five runners including stablemate Game Winner.
Best Pal Stakes winner Instagrand led the way from the gate under jockey Flavien Prat, just ahead of Nolo Contesto, while Roadster settled in fifth through fractions of :23.34 for the first quarter-mile and :47.84 for the half-mile.
Making an early move on the outside through the far turn, Joel Rosario guided Game Winner past Nolo Contesto and issued a challenge to the frontrunner. Prat asked Instagrand for more from his spot on the rail and his colt continued to lead as the field turned for home.
Game Winner wore down Instagrand with a sixteenth of a mile remaining, but missed Roadster coming up fast on the far outside. With the Santa Anita crowd screaming, Roadster chipped away at his stablemate's late margin, surging past near the finish and prevailing in a final time of 1:51.28.
"We knew before he and Game Winner started running that they both had ability," Smith said after the race. "They were breezing by the competition like this and putting them away. We weren't sure which one was better. The first time Roadster ran for me he showed he had all the gears. The second time he had the problem with his wind. We fixed that and he's doing all the right things. We got a good break and then we dropped back. He took a breather, while the others were going out there quick. When I asked him again, he was gone."
"I moved a little bit soon because they weren't putting much pressure on Instagrand," said Rosario of runner-up Game Winner, "but they weren't going too fast up front so I was comfortable with my position. He got a little bit tired the last part, that's why Roadster got by me."
Instagrand held third and earned 20 Kentucky Derby qualifying points for a total of 30, just missing the ever-narrowing Derby field of 20. Fourth-place Nolo Contesto picked up 10 points for his effort, and Synthesis and More Ice completed the order of finish.
"I thought he would've been closer to the lead frankly, but it was cool to see him run a different kind of race," said Peter Fluror of Speedway Stables. "He's been running second and then accelerating. Today, I'm proud of him for coming from off the pace like that. I wasn't too thrilled about things halfway through the race, but Mike said he's got gears and he showed it today. Hopefully, he comes out of it well and we can go on to the Derby.
With the security of a berth in the Kentucky Derby starting gate, Roadster proved to be the ace up Baffert's sleeve that could once again help stack the Derby deck in the Hall of Famer's favor.
"Roadster is a light horse but always shown brilliance from day one," Baffert said. "We're just lucky we were able to bring him back, because after Del Mar I was worried that maybe the (throat) surgery didn't go well, because it could've gone worse. But I couldn't thank the surgeon that did it enough. He's one of the best in the business and I've never had issues with it. His breathing is not an issue ... Today he passed the test to know he's good enough to go to the Big Show."
Roadster was a $525,000 purchase by Speedway from Stone Farm's consignment to the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale. He improved his record to 3-0-1 with $706,200 in earnings.
"They're two good horses," said Baffert of the top finishers. "Game Winner was out there by himself and when he gets by himself .. he needs company. It was a good, hard race for both of them, and coming in, that's what you want to see. I couldn't be happier. We knew that Roadster needed to win or run second.
"It was a great finish," Baffert continued. "They were both finishing well, they were fighting; Game Winner is a fighter. It was a great stretch run ... at the eighth pole I knew I was going to win, I just didn't know which one, but it was exciting. They rode great races ... We're there, we've just got to keep them happy and healthy, enjoy the ride, the moment. It's hard to get to this moment. What I love the best is there's not a better feeling than there was today."