Kentucky Derby contender profile: Nadal

March 16th, 2020

Trainer Bob Baffert has won five editions of the Kentucky Derby (G1), one shy of the record held by Ben Jones. In search of a record-equaling sixth Derby victory, the Hall of Fame conditioner holds a strong hand for 2020, led by the imposing colt Nadal.

A son of Blame, out of the Pulpit mare Ascending Angel, Nadal has been highly regarded from an early age. Sold for $700,000 as a 2-year-old in training and named after acclaimed tennis player Rafael Nadal, the equine Nadal debuted in a 6 1/2-furlong maiden sprint Jan. 19 at Santa Anita and delivered with a resounding victory. Favored at 6-5, Nadal recovered from a slow start to duel through fractions of :21.88 and :44.91, after which he kicked clear with authority to score by 3 3/4 lengths in 1:15.82.

But as flashy as he was on debut, Nadal’s greatest weapon has been tenacity. When he stepped up in class for Santa Anita’s 7-furlong San Vicente (G2) on Feb. 9, Baffert noted the colt had been lightly trained for the race and wasn’t primed for a peak effort. Nevertheless, Nadal survived another intense pace battle, dueled through fractions of :21.81 and :44.09, and edged clear to win by three-quarters of a length in 1:22.59. Reigning champion 2-year-old male Storm the Court was among Nadal’s beaten rivals.

An even stiffer test awaited when Nadal stretched out to 1 1/16 miles for the $1 million Rebel (G2) on March 14 at Oaklawn Park, a Road to the Kentucky Derby prep race that offers 50 qualification points to the winner.

After he broke a step slowly, Nadal was hounded from the start by the Grade 1-placed American Theorem. The two colts battled over a sloppy track, through fast fractions of :22.89, :46.00, and 1:11.38. Nadal had every excuse to fold under the pressure, but he persevered, dug deep to stem off the late-running longshot Excession, and prevailed by three-quarters of a length in 1:44.97.

It was a testament to Nadal’s determination and stamina that he survived such a relentless battle for early supremacy. American Theorem, exhausted by the duel, wound up beaten 27 1/4 lengths. Nadal might have suffered the same fate if not for his stout pedigree, which is geared top and bottom toward stamina. Sire Blame won the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) plus five other two-turn graded stakes races, while damsire Pulpit claimed the 1 1/8-mile Blue Grass Stakes (G2) and sired Tapit, the sire of 1 1/2-mile Belmont Stakes (G1) winners Tonalist, Creator, and Tapwrit.

Talent, tenacity, stamina, and a refuse-to-lose attitude that defines champions? That sounds like a recipe for victory on the first Saturday in May.