Favored Corniche’s sensational front-running effort provided embattled trainer Bob Baffert with a record fifth triumph in the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance on Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
Corniche, sent off at odds of 7-5, smoothly accelerated from the far outside post in a field of 11 to assume the early advantage. Although he carved out solid fractions of 23.03 seconds for a quarter-mile and 46.15 seconds for a half-mile, he still had plenty left at the end to defeat Pappacap by 1 ¾ lengths and allow Baffert to surpass fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas for the most Juvenile victories while 56-year-old jockey Mike Smith emerged as the second-oldest rider to win a Breeders’ Cup race after Bill Shoemaker.
The seemingly ageless Smith secured his 27th Cup win to extend his own mark. Three of those have come in the Juvenile. He said of 3-for-3 Corniche, a son of Quality Road purchased by Speedway Stable as a $1.5 million yearling: “He’s just dynamite.”
Smith said of his latest flawless performance in the season-ending championships: “There is something about the Breeders’ Cup that, for whatever odd reason, it just takes me to another level.”
Corniche completed 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.50. Pappacap ran on well to secure a clear second, 1 ½ lengths ahead of Giant Game.
Smith did not have a Breeders’ Cup mount last year and his business has fallen off this season. He hopes his success in the race that represents the centerpiece of Future Stars Friday will show owners and trainers that he still has much to offer. “I pray it does. I don’t plan to retire any time soon,” he said.
Baffert praised Smith for the way he handled Corniche from a post that could have doomed a lesser horse and a lesser jockey. “I knew he was going to have to use him harder than we like to. But Mike Smith is such a great rider. I love him on a speed horse like that,” he said.
Baffert, 68, may not be able to enjoy his time with Corniche much longer. Because he faces a two-year ban from Churchill Downs due to Medina Spirit’s positive drug test following the 2021 Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, his horses are not allowed to earn points to qualify for the next two editions of the run for the roses. Owner Peter Fluor indicated that issue will soon be addressed by the connections.
“That is a fair question. This race is so important for Corniche’s career and what it could mean as far as 2-year-old focus. We wanted to get to this race and see how we did,” Fluor said. “Bob and I will sit down and talk and so we’ll see what happens. We haven’t made any decisions.”
When asked about assigning the probable 2-year-old champion to another trainer, Fluor responded, “It would be difficult, yeah. But Bob and I have always talked. We’ve been very candid. I flew out and visited with him and said, ‘We’ve got to do what’s right for the horse.’”
Corniche shows every sign of being a serious Derby contender. He broke his maiden by 4 ¼ lengths when going five-and-a-half furlongs at Del Mar on Sept. 4. He handled a leap to Grade 1 competition with ease, controlling the Oct. 1 $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes Oct. 1 at Santa Anita Park by 3 ¼ lengths over Pappacap.
Due to the Derby and other recent positive drug tests involving his horses, Baffert’s runners have faced rigorous out-of-competition testing before the Breeders’ Cup and his barn has been closely monitored. He will be represented on Saturday by superstar Gamine in the $1 million Filly and Mare Sprint and by Medina Spirit in the $6 million Longines Classic.
Baffert said of winning the Juvenile during a tumultuous period in his career: “I want people to know that Bob Baffert is a good trainer and takes care of his horses.”
The Juvenile took an unexpected turn a day before the starting gate snapped open. Jack Christopher, undefeated through two eye-popping starts including a 2 ¼-length win in the Champagne Stakes for trainer Chad Brown and the morning-line 9-5 favorite, was scratched with an injury to his left shin.
Jack Christopher showed every sign of being in top form after breezing five furlongs in a bullet 1:00.82 on Oct. 29 at Belmont Park, only to endure a setback at the worst possible time for owners Jim Bakke, Gerald Isbister, Coolmore Stud and Peter Brant. Although there is every reason to believe the colt will make a full recovery and his 3-year-old season will not be impacted, missing the Juvenile represented a brutal disappointment for the connections.
Bradley Weisbord, racing manager for co-owner Bakke, perhaps expressed the sentiment of many when he said he felt “gutted” for the connections.