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O'Neill joins elite club in Santa Anita Derby; Baffert looks ahead to Kentucky
With the dust still settling on an overcast Sunday morning after Doug O'Neill gave Kevin Krigger a leg up on mutuelly maligned Goldencents who went on to win Saturday's Santa Anita Derby at 6-1, turning back the Bob Baffert-trained even-money favorite Flashback by 1 1/4 lengths, a sense of reason and calm prevailed.
It was a far cry from the scene in the winner's circle after Goldencents won, giving O'Neill his second straight Santa Anita Derby triumph, I'll Have Another capturing last year's edition before going on to an unlikely victory in the Kentucky Derby, followed by a win in the Preakness that proved his legitimacy to most naysayers.
O'Neill thus became the seventh trainer in 76 runnings of the Santa Anita Derby to win it back to back. The others were H.A. (Jimmy) Jones with Hill Gail and Chanlea in 1952 and 1953; Mesh Tenney with Swaps and Terrang in 1955 and 1956; Robert Wheeler with the filly Silver Spoon and Tompion in 1959 and 1960; Wayne Lukas with Muttering and Marfa in 1982 and 1983; Baffert with Indian Charlie and General Challenge in 1998 and 1998; and Jeff Mullins, who won the race three straight years, with Buddy Gil, Castledale and Buzzards Bay from 2003 through 2005.
Santa Anita's winner's circle resembled a three-ring circus morphed into one after Saturday's victory by Goldencents, but without a ringmaster. Everyone wanted his 15 minutes of fame. Conspicuous by his absence was Baffert, who designated assistant Jim Barnes to tend to Flashback's post-race needs.
Analyses were easier to come by Sunday morning.
"Garrett (Gomez) was in a good spot (on Flashback) turning for home," Baffert said reflecting on the race. "Flashback is still very mentally immature but when he came back to the barn he wasn't tired.
"I'm happy for Kevin Krigger. He does not stop hustling. He's his own best agent. It's like a dream come true."
In addition to Flashback, Baffert could have Sunland Derby winner Govenor Charlie and War Academy heading to Louisville, Kentucky, for the first Saturday in May.
That depends on whether War Academy fares well in this Saturday's Arkansas Derby. At Santa Anita on Sunday, the Giant's Causeway colt worked seven furlongs from the gate in 1:26 1/5 in company with Saddleranch, who was given a bullet 1:12 1/5 for six furlongs, also from the gate. Martin Garcia was on War Academy.
"The plan is to go to Kentucky depending on how everything goes," Baffert said. "I don't worry about the (qualifying) points. It all depends on how they train."
Baffert took time to smell the roses Saturday, no pun intended. The three-time Kentucky Derby winner was genuinely pleased to see 33,005 fans on track, and attributed it to their captivation with three-year-olds in pursuit of the Kentucky Derby.
"It looked like there were more people here yesterday than there was for the Breeders' Cup," Baffert said. "They give the T-shirt away with the names (of the Derby horses) on it. They love that.
"When you look out and see the back parking lot filled, that's what it's all about. Three year olds bring them out."
As for Goldencents, Baffert was magnanimous in defeat.
"Flashback just couldn't get to him," he said. "I hate when that happens. Goldencents is a good horse. He had everything his own way and it's hard to spot a horse like that. It was a good horse race.
"They ran fast (1 1/8 miles in 1:48 3/5) and it was probably the strongest Derby prep I've seen," Baffert added. "(Flashback) got a 103 Beyer (105 BRIS Speed rating), Goldencents got 105 (106 according to BRIS).
"(Wood winner) Verrazano went real slow, so they're not going to get a big figure. They walked around there, so the Derby is still a wide open race."
For the record, Verrazano got a 95 Beyer (but a 100 BRIS rating).
O'Neill's cell phone mailbox was full Sunday morning, where he was on the beat at Hollywood Park. On the backburner was the fact that O'Neill is a native of Dearborn, and his home state of Michigan plays for the NCAA basketball championship Monday night against Louisville, coached by Rick Pitino, who owns 5 percent of Goldencents.
"It will be mixed emotions, but Doug will have to choose who to root for," said trusted assistant Leandro Mora, who was tending to Goldencents at Santa Anita.
"The horse ate well and he walked sound, so we're very happy and looking forward to the future," said the 54-year-old Mora, who has been with Team O'Neill for 11 years.
Celebration last night was kept to a minimum.
"We went out to dinner," Mora said, "but I still was in shock thinking we'll be going to the Kentucky Derby back to back. It's a miracle coming true.
"Yesterday was completely different from the San Felipe, when we ran fourth. This time, the rider said, 'the heck with it,' and let the horse be the horse and not have humans change what he does naturally. Kevin just left him alone and the horse knew what to do."
Krigger and O'Neill entered Santa Anita Derby Day on a roll. They joined forces to win three races together on Friday, the 3RD with Toomanytomatoes, the 4TH with Bikini Bottom and the 6TH with A Thousand Aces. Each won another race on the card as well. O'Neill gave a leg up to Edwin Maldonado, who scored in the 2ND with Muchos Besos, and Krigger guided The Only Key to the winner's circle for Dean Greenman in the 5TH.
Krigger's "Grand Slam" coupled with his win Saturday on Goldencents gave him 24 for the meet, good for ninth in the standings, while O'Neill's surge moved him into a tie for second with Jerry Hollendorfer at 31 each, five behind leader Baffert.
While Saturday's on-track crowd of 33,005 roughly mirrored last year's Derby Day total of 33,166, on-track and overall pari-mutuel handle were up significantly.
The on-track handle of $4,047,710 was up $281,864 over last year and the overall "take" of $19,897,306 represented an increase of $2 million.