04/12/2015 10:17AM

Watchmaker: Baffert pair reminds of all-time greats

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On Saturday night, I posted the following on Twitter:

“This is how I see Baffert’s hand: American Pharoah is kinda like Seattle Slew, Dortmund is kinda reminiscent of Affirmed. Powerful stuff.”

If you’re familiar with me, you know I throw plaudits around like sewer covers. I think the term “great” is grossly overused in our game. But sometimes the spirit moves you, and I said what I said in that Twitter post because I meant it.

I’m not saying the Bob Baffert-trained pair of American Pharoah and Dortmund is as good as Seattle Slew and Affirmed. That would be ridiculous at this point. The latter two were Triple Crown winners and among the game’s all-time greats. American Pharoah and Dortmund haven’t even made it to the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby yet. But if you don’t see certain similarities between American Pharoah and Seattle Slew and Dortmund and Affirmed at this stage of their careers, then you either weren’t around when Seattle Slew and Affirmed were doing their thing, or you don’t remember.

American Pharoah, like Seattle Slew, has an undeniable brilliance about him. He’s got blazing speed and hasn’t been challenged in any of his victories, just like Seattle Slew at this point. But a lot like Seattle Slew, there are serious questions about who American Pharoah has beaten this year.

Younger folks might be surprised to know that even after he swept the Triple Crown, Seattle Slew really wasn’t embraced by the racing public because he did what he did against the Run Dusty Runs and Sanhedrins of the world. You don’t remember them? There is a reason for that. Seattle Slew’s greatness wasn’t fully acknowledged until he was 4.

It’s not American Pharoah’s fault that he was in the gate with nothing in his two starts this year at Oaklawn, but even if he did keep good company last year, the fact that he has kept questionable company lately still is there. And don’t think for a second that won’t keep a certain segment of the racing public – call them wise guys if you want – from fully embracing American Pharoah until he does beat a top-quality field, like, you know, Seattle Slew eventually did.

Dortmund, like Affirmed, has a certain steely toughness about him. Like Affirmed, Dortmund will use any method, whether it be going to the lead or coming from off the pace, to beat you. And like Affirmed, Dortmund has a foil to help demonstrate how good he is. After losing two close decisions to Dortmund, Firing Line went to New Mexico and won the Sunland Derby literally by the length of the stretch. As my friend Ernie Munick noted, what Firing Line did at Sunland was a lot like what Alydar used to do when he got away from Affirmed.

I gushed over Dortmund in this space last week after his Santa Anita Derby, so let’s focus for a moment on American Pharoah and his romp in Saturday’s Arkansas Derby. For the first time in any of his victories, American Pharoah did something I wanted to see, which is concede the early lead and still be effective. And was he ever effective, running off to score by eight in time fast enough for a 105 Beyer Speed Figure without ever drawing so much as a deep breath.

However, as genuinely exciting as American Pharoah’s display was, it wouldn’t be right not to note how things could easily be very different for him in Louisville, and not just in terms of quality of opposition, which most certainly will be exponentially tougher. I’m talking about trip. It’s one thing to indulge an overmatched longshot on a suicide mission for the early lead as American Pharoah did in the Arkansas Derby. Although American Pharoah demonstrated he can rate, he still had another perfect trip, something he has had in every one of his wins.

Yes, I know that American Pharoah’s speed and obvious quality makes him good enough to make his own perfect trip every time he goes to the gate. But what happens to American Pharoah against a far better field in the Derby if someone (or two) goes crazy fast early (which has been known to happen), or if he breaks a quarter-step slow, gets momentarily shuffled, and finds himself seventh going into the first turn? Can American Pharoah overcome that?
He might. Big Brown came from farther off the pace to win his Derby than I thought he would because he was just so much the best. Maybe the same is true with American Pharoah over what looks like a high quality 3-year-old crop, and we just don’t know it yet. But I just have more faith that Dortmund (who, by pure coincidence, is by Big Brown) would have more success overcoming a trip like that. We’ll find out soon enough.

Either way, what a hand Baffert has going into this Derby.

Other notes

** I don’t care what she was in with – I was knocked out by Beholder’s comeback in Friday’s Santa Lucia. I was less impressed with Untapable’s win in the Apple Blossom, but her performance was several levels better than her indifferent second in her seasonal bow, and it’s good to see her move in the right direction.

** Speaking of moving in the right direction, no one can deny Race Day his position as one of the best older males in the country any more. His domination of his Oaklawn Handicap field was a “Wow” performance.

** Nice rebound for Protonico in the Ben Ali. I like how Protonico, who is best as a closer, went to the lead this time because there was no other speed in the race. I like that versatility, and there are plenty of handicap-division races out there that Protonico is good enough to win.

** While on the subject of changing running styles, Divining Rod looked like a completely different, and better, horse winning the Lexington after employing rating tactics. And though he only managed a second as the favorite, Donworth was making only his second career start and first at two turns. He will be a good one.

Raymond Felder More than 1 year ago
MIKE I AGREE WITH YOU, BUT PLEASE TELL ME HOW TALE OF VERVE IS ALLOWED TO RUN IN THIS RACE?
Robert Dorff More than 1 year ago
Pace in THE DERBY has me puzzled. Fractions just a tiny bit faster than a work. And yet DORTMUND didn't have anything left at the end.. Why??
SaratogaBob More than 1 year ago
Mike. I read an article yesterday that encapsulated a post race interview with Bob Baffert. What struck a chord for me was a comment from Bob that stated how proud he was that his two horses ran so well. (American Pharaoh - 1st and Dortmund - 3rd). In the course of the conversation he divulged that he felt they were lucky to get Dortmund to the race. That Dortmund came back from his April 25 workout at Santa Anita workout and developed a case of colic. That Dortmund was lucky that it cleared up quickly and they decided to ship to the Derby. Was this news made public before the race? I have reached out to a number of horse racing writers and so far no one was aware of the colic issue prior to the race. Were you or the DRF staff aware of the colic issue with Dortmund prior to the race? Thank you.
Raymond Felder More than 1 year ago
I AGREE WITH U BECAUSE I WAS AROUND WHEN THE GREAT ONES WERE RUNNING. I SEE ALL THE SPEED CHASING DORTMUND INSIDE, AND AS THEY HEAD FOR HOME THE PHAROAH WILL BE FLYING TO THE FINISH LINE.
mooch More than 1 year ago
Too early until the post position draw, track condition, other late changes and defections, handicapping pace or even having a form yet . But at this point I have noticed that Dortman is 1st or 2nd on most Derby lists, but Firing Line is way below Dortman on most lists (as far down as 11th on some list). With Dortman and Firing Line's two battles legging them both up and both having an easy last prep (no bounce worries), neither one regressing they are both coming into the Derby perfect. Not saying Firing Line is as good as Dortman and he looks like Dortman's Alydar, but how many horses can you fit between their two close finishes? At this point wouldn't you have to list Firing Line directly below Dortman? Not saying I'm picking Dortman or against him, just saying if you have Dortman 1st wouldn't it stand to reason to have Firing Line 2nd, or if you have him 5th wouldn't Firing Line have to be 6th?
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I haven't always agreed with your Derby selections, Mike, but I do this time. Dortmund is going to be very, very hard to beat. As for Amer. Pharaoh, he could be a true Superstar, judging from that last race and the way he won. My only concern for him is, can he handle a rushed break because he didn't seem to in his first start, though it could have been the blinkers which were removed in his next start. But, Dortmund is big, like Forego was and he'll get better as he grows into that massive frame. The Derby goes through Baffert.
michael stapler More than 1 year ago
I've been monitored many times here for not gloating, like others about "great horses". as a handicapper. I am usually right. When everyone was praising Chrome, I said he would never see the day he bests Shared Belief again. HE WON'T. I look for value and try to beat the so-called great ones. I rarely give applauds to horses, but American Pharaoh looks like an outright monster. Q/Will I try to beat him on Derby Day? A/I am still wrestling with that one. I do like Prospect park a bit though.
Paul G More than 1 year ago
Michael, you are probably right, Shared Belief probably has no equal, certainly not Chrome...at this point. It may be a slight chance however that.....if Chrome and Shared Belief run against each other in the Breeders Cup Classic, which is much later this year, Shared Belief may discover that California Chrome will have grown into his large physique and may present a difficult challenge.
Meydan Rocks More than 1 year ago
Very interesting point!
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
Kinda reminds me of the pair Ben Jones took to the Derby in 1948: Citation and Coaltown. Eddie Arcaro wasn't certain which one was the best so he asked Mr. Jones who told him that if he didn't get on Citation he would be on a loser. Even as the race progressed, Arcaro still wasn't sure that he had made the right choice in Citation since Coaltown drew off to a big lead, but then Citation started reeling him in and soon it became clear that Citation would win and justify Jones' opinion. I wonder which one Baffert likes ???
David Benning More than 1 year ago
He may like one more than the other, but only the race itself will answer the question, and sometimes the first encounter doesn't even settle the matter to everyone's content. The question I want answered is which horse JV will ride for Pletcher or is it a foregone conclusion that he will ride CD?
Bill Kaup More than 1 year ago
It would really surprise me if he didn't choose CD.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
If JV goes for CD, it could be, the $1,600,000 price tag might sway him, but that Afleet Alex colt is the real thing, it says here. John, don't listen to anyone and you'll have no regrets later!!!
Randy Baker More than 1 year ago
Do you remember a disappointed Mr.Zayats" remarks after his horse scratched prior to the BC juvenile?He said this horse "will" win the Kentucky Derby.If he is correct ,they will flash back many times to that video.Hopefully the majority if not all the players load in the starting gates.
Vince Lentini More than 1 year ago
Slew was unbeaten at this point AP is not Affirmed had run 13 times at this point with 11 wins and Grade 1's at 5 different tracks There really isnt any comparison at all