It’s a truism to say that Bob Baffert has formidable contenders for the Kentucky Derby (G1), on the order of “the sun rises in the east.”
Still, that virtually evergreen statement has taken on renewed force after Saturday’s Arkansas Derby (G1) doubleheader.
His unbeaten duo of Charlatan and Nadal dominated their respective divisions as odds-on favorites, sparking debate about which one performed better and might have the upper hand at Churchill Downs. Meanwhile, yet another undefeated stablemate, Authentic, spent the day at home awaiting the Santa Anita Derby (G1) now planned for June 6.
That date, of course, points to our unprecedented circumstances amid the COVID-19 pandemic, with the Kentucky Derby delayed to Sept. 5. As a five-time Derby winner, Baffert knows how to bring 3-year-olds to peak on the first Saturday in May. Keeping them sound and healthy through the first Saturday in September is another challenge entirely.
Another new wrinkle in evaluating the Baffert beasts is the lack of 2-year-old form. In years past, juvenile resumes helped sift through Baffert’s elite Derby contenders.
For example, in 1998, the up-and-coming Indian Charlie beat seasoned veteran Real Quiet in the Santa Anita Derby, but in the Kentucky Derby, Real Quiet was best and nearly won the Triple Crown. While that angle wasn’t as helpful in the 2001 Derby, where the inexperienced Congaree held third and favored Point Given was a subar fifth, it verified for the rest of the year. Again in 2015, it was the 2-year-old champion American Pharoah who maintained his superiority over Dortmund.
None of that applies in a post-Justify world.
Neither Nadal nor Charlatan raced at two. Authentic did, but not until November when sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs in his Del Mar debut.
In principle, I preferred Charlatan as a Derby prospect to Nadal before the Arkansas Derby, in an instinctive belief that he was the more natural router of the two. Nadal taught me a lesson in Division 2, proving he was not indeed the redux of The Factor or Secret Circle that I’d supposed. His ability to stalk and trounce other high-class speed in Wells Bayou, and finish 9 furlongs in 1:48.34, refuted my hypothesis.
Although Charlatan had the easier assignment of wiring the first division as lone speed in 1:48.49, I still like him better than Nadal for the Derby. Charlatan set slightly faster splits while giving the impression of moving effortlessly. He obviously was putting forth substantial effort, but his way of going – that quality of making it look easy – puts him in the potentially very, very special category.
Nadal’s counterargument is that he’s a physically more imposing type, and his brawn would serve him well in the rough-and-tumble Derby environment. Moreover, unlike the unchallenged Charlatan, Nadal is a proven streetfighter who’s survived intense battles in the San Vicente (G2) and Rebel (G2) as well.
Yet Nadal’s very substance as a heavy-bodied horse could make him more liable to injury over the next four months. He also appears to pound the ground more than Charlatan, who has that light-on-his-feet action. Perhaps that’s another of my hypotheses that Nadal will refute.
If all three of Baffert’s leading hopes make it to the starting gate, however, it’s a curious fact that he hasn’t won the Derby when he’s had three starters (1999, 2006, 2019).