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A Longley look at the Derby: Baffert duo set for their anticipated season debuts

March 15, 2019

By: Rob Longley for

TORONTO, March 15, 2019 – As a two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer, Bob Baffert is anything but a rebel when it comes to preparing high-end colts for the Kentucky Derby.

As for the Rebel Stakes, this week’s highly anticipated prep race for the Run for the Roses, the California-based conditioner finds the Arkansas race to be a strong fit to his program.

He’s won the race a record six times after all, including American Pharaoh in 2015, one of the springboards to that great colt’s Triple Crown sweep.

Safe to say, however, that this year’s running of the Rebel has an extra level of anticipation given that it has been split into two divisions and given that a pair of undefeated Baffert colts will make their three-year-old debuts as favourites in each of them.

Both Game Winner and Improbable will take their first steps on the Derby trail Saturday at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Arkansas, both looking to follow up on their considerable two-year-old promise.

In the first of two $750,000 divisions, Improbable is the prohibitive 3-5 morning line favourite. Perhaps the more visually impressive of the Baffert pair, he’s been training impressively in California minimizing any worry associated with leaving from the outside Post 9.

Baffert’s slightly more touted entrant, two-year-old champion Game Winner, is the 4-5 favourite in the second division and will break from Post 5 for jockey Joel Rosario. A perfect four-for-four as as two-year-old, Game Winner was never really pushed in any of those starts but has at least a couple of opponents in Gunmetal Gray and Omaha Beach that certainly seem capable of providing a test.

While there is excitement tailing both of the Baffert interests, history has shown us that at this point in the race to be ready for Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May, the battle within his stable can be unpredictable.

Think Real Quiet over Indian Charlie in 1998 as an early example and as recently as last year when McKinzie was the early star of the shed row only to be overtaken by Triple Crown champ, Justify.

Game Winner gets the early nod of the two based on his Breeders’ Cup Juvenile win, which has historically been a curse. All three of Baffert’s previous Juvenile winners did not make the Derby starting gate.

“From a statistical standpoint, we’re kind of an underdog,” Game Winner’s owner, Gary West, told America’s Best Racing. “But I think and Bob thinks, this is a different kind of horse. If you see the horse, he’s a beast.”


First it was Hidden Scroll and now Tacitus putting Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott in the Derby discussion.

The grey son of Tapit set a stakes record in storming to victory in last Saturday’s Tampa Bay Derby, doing so at odds of 8-1 for jockey Jose Ortiz. The Juddmonte Farms homebred earned 50 points from the Road to the Kentucky Derby series event and is not well in the mix.

The race was a disappointment for Woodbine-based trainer Mark Casse whose two entrants were not part of the mix. Sir Winston was a well beaten fifth in the field of 11 while Dream Maker – who at odds of 5-2 was the second choice – was bumped and steadied at the start and finished 10th.


An interesting competitor for Canadian race fans in Saturday’s Rebel is Galilean, a promising colt from the barn of Jerry Hollendorfer.

Though a California-bred, the $600,000 yearling purchase has strong ties to one of the first families of Canadian Thoroughbred racing. Galilean is out of Fresia, whose third dam is Classy ’n Smart, a Canadian champion filly who produced many stars including the great Dance Smartly.

A winner of three of his four career starts, the 2-1 morning line choice breaks away from California-breds in this start to see where he fits on the Derby trail.


1 . Game Winner, trainer Bob Baffert
Continues to work consistently for Baffert and certainly seems raring to go for his three-year-old debut this weekend. The one to beat in his split of the Rebel at Oaklawn.

2. War of Will, trainer Mark Casse
The Risen Star winner is back on the work tab at the Fairgrounds putting the current Derby points leader on track for his final Derby prep, the Louisiana Derby.

3. Improbable, trainer Bob Baffert
See comments above on Game Winner. The two have done everything together and were expected to face each other in their first sophomore start. With split divisions of the Rebel, that dilemma is averted.

4. Code of Honor, trainer Shug McGaughey
When a well-meant colt bounces back with a cranked-up effort like this one did in his impressive Fountain of Youth win, we take notice. McGaughey knows how to manage such a well-meant colt and we can’t to see him in the Florida Derby.

5. Tacitus, trainer Bill Mott
Holds down the fifth spot on our chart for now based on his Tampa Bay Derby win. While the field might not have been deep, the winning time and especially the stout closing style was impressive.

Follow Rob Longley’s weekly column on chronicling the path to the Kentucky Derby, set for Saturday, May 4 at Churchill Downs. Be sure to join us in celebrating the first jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown at Woodbine’s annual exclusive Derby Day Party featuring fabulous food, fashion and entertainment.
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