But this year he’s going back to his 2020 playbook, except, of course, with the Kentucky Derby in May instead of September. Last year, Authentic’s first three races were a maiden race at Del Mar, the Sham Stakes at Santa Anita and the San Felipe, also at Santa Anita.
Life Is Good, possibly the best of Baffert’s four Derby contenders this year, is taking the same path. Saturday the 3-year-old colt is the 4-5 morning-line favorite in the 1 1/16-mile Grade 2 $300,000 San Felipe Stakes in only his third race. The winner is all but assured a spot in the 20-horse Kentucky Derby on May 1.
Authentic finished second in the logical next step after the San Felipe, the Santa Anita Derby. That was followed by a win in July in the Haskell, something that won’t happen this year, and finally the Kentucky Derby in September.
Authentic and Life Is Good have some of the same characteristics.
“We have really deep racetrack [at Santa Anita] and he just glides over the top of it,” Baffert said while watching his horses gallop Friday morning.
“Authentic was the same way. Some horses struggle with it, they can’t get through it. But he gets through it really well. He’s extremely quick. He’s fast.”
Both horses also have the same sire, Into Mischief.
Certainly, there is no magical path to win the Kentucky Derby. Baffert’s first winner was Silver Charm in 1997 and the San Felipe was his fifth race. Real Quiet made his 11th start in the San Felipe when he won the Derby in 1998. Baffert's other three winners — War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018) — did not run in the San Felipe.
“It depends when they are ready to run as to how many races they have,” Baffert said. “If a horse has an issue, like Justify, you back them off and that’s why he was late to the party. Prep races are hard, which is why what Justify did [winning the Santa Anita Derby in his third start] was extraordinary.”
The goal for Life Is Good on Saturday is for jockey Mike Smith to get the horse to relax early in the race and not burn himself out by the finish. In the Sham Stakes, he took a four-length lead into the stretch, which was whittled down to three-quarters of a length by the finish line.
“We’ve been working on him to shut it down on the backside, to relax a little bit,” Baffert said. “As they get older, they start to figure it out but with just two [races] it’s a little difficult . But there is nothing like racing to get them to learn how to relax.”
Baffert also has the second favorite in Saturday’s race, Medina Spirit, at 7-2. He won a maiden race at Los Alamitos, finished second to Life Is Good in the Sham and then got an extra race in, winning the Robert B. Lewis Stakes.
“Medina Spirit is another horse that nobody talks about.” Baffert said. “He’s really tough and I really didn’t want to ship him out because he’s sort of light-bodied. Maybe his next prep I might ship him out.
“It’s not until you stretch them out to 1 1/8 [miles], and that’s when they start to separate. Because at 1 1/16 [of a mile] they are still all going to be right there. They are going to go fast early and then they stagger home while another horse comes from the back.”
Also given some attention in the seven-horse race is The Great One (4-1), who broke his maiden by 14 lengths in his fifth try, and Roman Centurian (8-1), who was second to Medina Spirit in the Lewis Stakes.
Baffert’s other two Derby hopefuls are Spielberg, a $1-million purchase, who finished second last week in the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park in his eighth race, and Concert Tour, who is undefeated in two starts including a win in the San Vicente.
Both colts seem to be looking at their Derby path through Arkansas. Baffert is considering the Arkansas Derby for Spielberg’s next race and Concert Tour runs next Saturday in the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn.
“I think this is when you start getting excited, whether your horse belongs or not,” Baffert said.
For some, that question will be answered Saturday.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.