Del Mar Odyssey: Into the Home Stretch

by | 08.28.2018 | 3:27pm
The Del Mar Thoroughbred Club summer meet closes on Labor Day

Peter Miller has virtually wrapped up his third summer training title at Del Mar, which enters its final week of racing on Wednesday. Miller is clicking at 30 percent, saddling 28 winners from 92 starts. That puts him 12 ahead of Doug O'Neill, who came back down to earth after winning four races opening day July 18 and now has 16 wins from 120 starts.

John Sadler is third, with 15 winners from 57 starts. Remarkably, eight of those winners are in stakes races, including Accelerate in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic.

Further down the list of leading trainers is Bob Baffert, the Hall of Famer who has won racing's Triple Crown in two of the last four years – with American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018.

Baffert has 10 wins from 34 starts but sent some of his big stars to Saratoga last weekend for a Grade 1 double: Abel Tasman winning the Personal Ensign and Marley's Freedom taking the Ballerina. While Justify is done racing, his stallion destination yet to be announced, Baffert has last year's 3-year-old champion, West Coast, on the comeback trail. He had his first breeze on Tuesday morning, getting a half mile on Del Mar's main track in :48.80, but he's not ready to say when he'll return to the races.

“It looks like he's pretty fit,” Baffert said of the 4-year-old Flatter colt who last raced in the G1 Dubai World Cup on March 31, finishing second to Thunder Snow. “He handled it pretty well, but it's week to week.”

Another comebacker in the Baffert barn is 2017 Pacific Classic winner Collected, who's breezed three times recently and, according to his trainer, “is pretty far along and getting close to a race.” Collected got a lengthy freshening after finishing seventh to Gun Runner in the G1 Pegasus World Cup Jan. 27.

It's the 2-year-olds that get Baffert really excited, however, and he's already unveiled a number of top prospects. In fact, of the 11 2-year-olds he's started in maiden special weight races at Del Mar, he's won eight, with one second (behind a Baffert winner) and one third.

Included in that group is Roadster, a Quality Road colt who goes as a strong contender in the G1 Del Mar Futurity on the closing day program on Labor Day, Sept. 3. Baffert also may run Game Winner in the Futurity. The Candy Ride colt won at first asking Aug. 18.

He's also loaded with filly talent. July 22 maiden winner Mother Mother (by Pioneerof the Nile) goes in the G1 Del Mar Debutante on Sept. 1. Chasing Yesterday, a half sister to American Pharoah who scored impressively on July 28, has shipped east to Saratoga to contest Saturday's G1 Spinaway. “I really like her,” he said of the chestnut filly by Tapit. “She getting better and better.”

How does Baffert explain his 73 percent success rate with juvenile first-time starters at the current meet?

“It's what we're here for,” Baffert said. “We have a lot of good 2-year-olds – about 50 in all. Usually I have 30-40. They're good horses, but we get 'em ready.”

Remembering John Asher

Shortly after I moved to Lexington, Ky., in 1988 I first heard John Asher's deep, rich voice on WHAS, better known as “the Derby station” back in the days when AM radio was a big deal.

No one produced horse racing features on the radio like John did. He knew where the best stories were, asked the right questions and put together the sounds of the racetrack, and especially the backstretch, to tell those stories.

One of the pleasures of Derby week back in the late 1980s and early '90s was driving from Lexington to Louisville for an evening's social event, tuning the radio to 840 on the AM dial and listening to a 20- or 30-minute John Asher feature.

Not unlike a William Nack essay in Sports Illustrated, a John Asher feature on radio put listeners in the shedrow of a Derby contender, eavesdropping on conversations with trainers, jockeys, grooms and owners.

Radio's loss was Churchill Downs' gain when he took a job at the track in January 1997. As the parent company expanded into non-racing businesses, John was a tireless advocate for racing, and especially for the Kentucky Derby and all of its glorious history. As racetrack president Kevin Flanery said, “John Asher was the soul of Churchill Downs.”

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