Corniche rolls to Breeders' Cup Juvenile win for under-fire trainer Bob Baffert

Mike Smith, left, rides Corniche to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile race at Del Mar on Nov. 5, 2021.
Mike Smith, left, rides Corniche to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Del Mar. The victory stamps the colt as the early favorite for next year's Kentucky Derby at Churchill Downs, where his trainer, Bob Baffert, has been banned. (Gregory Bull / Associated Press)

Trainer Bob Baffert is in an interesting predicament, and it's one with which he’s OK. He now has the favorite for the Kentucky Derby, a race in which he is banned.

This latest twist came when his 2-year-old colt Corniche was dominant in winning the $2-million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on Friday on the first day of the two-day Breeders’ Cup. Starting from the far outside 12 post, jockey Mike Smith hustled him to the front and then glided him down to the rail, where he held the lead for the remainder of the 1 1/16-mile race. The winning margin was 1¾ lengths.

The problem with all of this is that Churchill Downs has put Baffert on a two-year suspension after this year’s Derby winner, Medina Spirit, tested positive for an anti-inflammatory that is legal except on race day. The Kentucky Horse Racing Commission has yet to charge Baffert with any infraction or given him a hearing. But Churchill Downs went ahead with its suspension, based on other medication overages in a 12-month period.

“The Derby is a long ways off, and so right now my focus was just getting here and we’ll see how it plays out,” Baffert said. “There’s not much to talk about that right now, and the main thing is to keep him healthy. The Derby is a long ways off, so a lot can happen between now and then and we’ll see how it plays out.”

The problem of getting the horse to the Derby is he needs qualifying points, something Baffert's horses are not allowed to acquire because of the ban.

Trainer Bob Baffert, right, walks up to Mike Smith on Corniche.
Trainer Bob Baffert, right, walks up to jockey Mike Smith, aboard Corniche, after the colt won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Del Mar. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The owners, Peter Fluor and K.C. Weiner, are heavily invested in the colt, having bought him for $1.5 million. Still, if the situation is not resolved, they would have to move him to another trainer sometime next year to pick up some qualifying points and then run in the race.

“All we have is a Plan A, [and that’s Baffert],” Fluor said. “Bob’s doing a great job, and we have a better chance of winning this race with our friend Bob Baffert, and that’s what happened. … K.C. and I never thought of moving the horse to a different trainer.”

It was Corniche’s third victory in three starts, all as the favorite. He paid $4.80, $4.00 and $3.40. Pappacap was second, followed by Giant Game, Commandperformance, Oviatt Class, Pinehurst, American Sanctuary, Double Thunder, Barossa, Jasper Great and Tough to Tame.

Baffert hasn’t spoken much about the Medina Spirit situation or his suspension. But after the news conference, as he traded a flute of champagne for a plastic cup of soda, he opened up about it.

“It's been harder on [wife] Jill and the kids,” Baffert said. “I know we didn’t do anything wrong. I know we’re going to get through this when all the facts come out. I’m able to train the horse. I stay focused.

“The Medina Spirit thing, we were doing the right thing. We had a legal, FDA-approved ointment on him. … The thing is I didn’t do anything wrong, but unfortunately I’ve been painted badly. But I just took it. Let the facts come out.”

This was Baffert’s fifth victory in the Juvenile, but none of his other winners went on to win the Kentucky Derby, a race Baffert has won seven times.

“Fridays are usually horrible, and my Saturdays are good,” Baffert said. “I just hope I can carry it on to [Saturday].”

It was Smith’s third victory in the Juvenile.

“The only thing I was worried about was that [Corniche] got hotter [before the race] than he ever had,” Smith said. “It just made me get calmer. I don’t think I’ve ever been so calm in a big race. I just sat really still. He caught a flyer leaving the gate and just left him alone.”

If the Baffert situation weren't strange enough, the final race of the day, the $1-million Juvenile Turf, was delayed, two horses were scratched, and one of them was allowed to run for purse money only and finished first in the race.

It started when Modern Games, in the one post, reared up, causing Albahr, in the two, to also rear and eventually end up under the starting gate. Meanwhile, an assistant starter opened the front of Modern Games' gate while the track veterinarians thought the horse had broken through. It was then that a track veterinarian radioed to the stewards to scratch both horses.

Upon examination, it was discovered that Modern Games was unhurt and racing fit. But since he had already been scratched, he couldn’t be put back in the betting pool. He was allowed to run for purse money only.

And, as this strange occurrence got more strange, Modern Games won the race. The second-place horse, Tiz the Bomb, paid out prices for win, place and show plus exotic bets. Tiz the Bomb paid $17.60 to not win.

As Modern Games crossed the finish line, there was loud booing from the crowd of 20,536. Veteran race watchers at Del Mar said they have never heard that kind of reaction from the normally genteel racegoers.

William Buick celebrates atop Modern Games after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf race at Del Mar.
Jockey William Buick celebrates atop Modern Games after winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf race at Del Mar. (Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

There were three other Breeders’ Cup races, including an impressive performance by Echo Zulu winning the Juvenile Fillies by an uncontested 5¼ lengths. She is the daughter of Gun Runner, whom Steve Asmussen trained to a win in the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2017 at Del Mar.

“The level of proud is just unbelievable with her being from the first crop of Gun Runner,” Asmussen said. “She came through Mom and Dad’s [training center] in Laredo. She’s just brilliant. She’s faster than they are. It’s a simple as that.

She paid $3.20 to win as the favorite with Joel Rosario as the jockey.

Celebrity chef Bobby Flay’s Pizza Bianca came from well off the pace to win the $1-million Juvenile Fillies Turf over one mile paying $21.80 to win for trainer Christophe Clement and jockey Jose Ortiz.

Twilight Gleaming led the whole way in the five-furlong $1-million Juvenile Turf Sprint. She was first out of the gate and just outran the other 11 horses to win by a half-length. Trained by Wesley Ward and ridden by Irad Ortiz Jr., he paid $12.40 to win. California Angel, trained by George Leonard, the first Black to condition a Breeders’ Cup horse, finished 11th in the 14-horse field.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.