Santa Anita is quiet, but Bob Baffert's horses make some noise

·4 min read
The horses hit the home stretch in Saturday's second race at Santa Anita. Spectators were not allowed on the premises because of the coronavirus outbreak. (Gary Coronado / Los Angeles Times)

Trainers giving elbow bumps to owners. Jockeys getting their temperature taken. Betting machines turned off. Spectators banned from the premises.

It wasn’t your normal day at Santa Anita on Saturday in a time of the coronavirus pandemic disrupting sports competitions around the world. There was one familiar figure doing what he does best — Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert holding court in the winner’s circle after his latest Kentucky Derby hopeful crushed the competition.

Charlatan, one of three highly regarded unbeaten 3-year-olds in the Baffert barn, won a mile allowance race by 10 1/4 lengths on a rainy, deep track just minutes after another Baffert 3-year-old, unbeaten Nadal, won the $1-million Rebel Stakes by three quarters of a length at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.

Charlatan, a son of Speightstown purchased for $700,000 in 2018, is two for two. Nadal, a son of Blame purchased for $700,000, is three for three. Authentic, the winner of the San Felipe Stakes last week and a son of Into Mischief bought for $350,000, is two for two.

“They’re three pretty wicked hombres,” Baffert said.

Two of the horses — Charlatan and Authentic — have Drayden Van Dyke as their jockey. Before anyone decides which horse he might ride in the Kentucky Derby, there has to be a Kentucky Derby. It’s always scheduled for the first Saturday in May, but Churchill Downs is trying to decide what to do at a time athletic events that are being held are banning spectators, including the scene at an eerie Santa Anita on Saturday.

“It’s really scary what’s going on right now,” Van Dyke said. “I hope they get it under control.”

Baffert said he has heard speculation of possibly postponing the Kentucky Derby to June or even September. Churchill Downs officials said in a statement, “This is not a decision we take lightly and we expect to have an update about the Kentucky Derby and additional information on our upcoming spring meet in the coming week.”

“It’s a scary time,” Baffert said. “I never felt we could be this vulnerable. I’m glad we could run today. Unfortunately, there’s nobody here to cheer your horses on. I feel like we’re running trial races.

“I know one thing. I have some really nice horses. Right now the Derby is out of my hands. I’ll worry about the next prep. If they can postpone the Masters, that’s pretty huge.”

Charlatan won his first start by 5 3/4 lengths Feb. 16 at Santa Anita with the fastest six-furlong time of the Santa Anita meeting in 1:08.4. The question for his second career start was how well he would handle racing around two turns. Charlatan went to the lead soon after not breaking particularly well and never looked back.

“This horse is so quiet in his demeanor,” Van Dyke said. “In the workouts in the morning, when it’s time to go, he just flips the switch. It’s very impressive. He was on cruise control. If I had one come and pressure me a little bit, he’d do whatever I wanted him to do.”

In the Grade I, $400,000 Beholder Mile, Ce Ce ran down favorite Hard Not To Love to win by 3 1/4 lengths under jockey Victor Espinoza.

Before the eight-race card began, the Thoroughbred Owners of California held a conference call Saturday morning with owners in which Santa Anita executives addressed concerns related to the coronavirus. They indicated there are close to 1,000 workers staying at Santa Anita and track officials are making contingency plans and taking safety precautions. Visitors will no longer be allowed in the stable area, but owners can still check out their horses.

Trainer Vladimir Cerin, whose horse won the first race, gave an elbow bump to celebrate. He also thinks horse racing can endure in a time of uncertainty.

“There’s no other sports on television,” he said as he walked from the near empty trainer/owners boxes to the winner’s circle.

The handle at Santa Anita was $6,523,828.28, indicating that bettors are still betting.