PHOTOS by Terry Miller
The Hall of Fame trainer was all smiles when Midnight Interlude scored a surprising victory in the Grade I, $1 million race Saturday, suddenly giving Baffert a third option for the Kentucky Derby.
“We weren’t sure,” he said about the unproven colt. “He’d been training well, but he hadn’t had the class test, gut-check yet.”
Midnight Interlude got it in the stretch, rallying under Victor Espinoza to overhaul Comma to the Top and win by a head in the West’s biggest prep for the May 7 Kentucky Derby. Midnight Interlude ran 1 1-8 miles in 1:48.66 before an on-track crowd of 31,523.
“I’m not even feeling it yet. I can’t believe it,” said Ellen Zetcher, who bred and owns the colt with her husband, Arnold.
The victory represented a dramatic turnaround for Baffert and Espinoza from last April. That’s when Lookin At Lucky got squeezed down along the rail, forcing Garrett Gomez to stand up in the saddle.
Gomez accused Espinoza, riding a horse called Who’s Up, of bouncing him off the rail. He went after Espinoza after the race, landing punches before the two were separated and later went at it again in the jockeys’ room.
Baffert was furious at Gomez for putting his horse into that spot, and he wasn’t too pleased with Espinoza.
“I told Victor, `A year ago I wanted to kill you. Now you win the Santa Anita Derby,'” Baffert said, smiling.
Last year, Baffert’s wife, Jill, lit into Espinoza, asking why he tried to unseat Gomez. Espinoza repeatedly denied any wrongdoing, but the damage to his long relationship with Baffert was done.
The two, who won the 2002 Kentucky Derby with War Emblem, drifted even further apart, having previously butted heads. But when Baffert needed a rider for Midnight Interlude, he called Espinoza’s agent, and the jockey was back in the fold, riding for Baffert for the first time since Santa Anita’s meeting opened Dec. 26.
“They know I still respect them,” Baffet said of the riders. “My wife was upset because she was worried Lookin At Lucky could have gotten hurt and I was mad because he (Gomez) shouldn’t have been in that spot.”
Now, Baffert and Espinoza are headed to the Derby together.
“We’ve always been lucky and I think this year we’re going to go forward again,” the jockey said. “I’m just excited to be back. We’re old-timers, huh, Bob.”
It was Espinoza’s first Santa Anita Derby win, and Baffert’s record sixth. Jill Baffert was in Arkansas on Saturday, watching her horse lose in the Oaklawn Handicap.
“She’s so excited,” he said. “She needed a picker-upper.”
Sent off at 13-1 odds by the crowd of 31,523, Midnight Interlude paid $29.80, $12 and $6. It was Baffert’s third win on the day’s card.
Midnight Interlude was the least accomplished of Baffert’s Kentucky Derby possibilities, having lost his first two races before winning for the first time by 8½ lengths on March 20.
“Up until Midnight Interlude won, Ellen wouldn’t even let me mention the Kentucky Derby,” Arnold Zetcher said. “When it happened, I had to go confirm with Bob, `Are we really going to the Kentucky Derby?’ and he said, `Yes.'”
The Factor has garnered most of the attention for the three-time Kentucky Derby-winning trainer, and if he runs impressively in next weekend’s Arkansas Derby, he could give Baffert the favorite for the Run for the Roses.
That role was supposed to belong to Uncle Mo, who lost for the first time Saturday, finishing third in a stunning defeat in the Wood Memorial.
Jaycito was supposed to run Saturday in the Santa Anita Derby, which would have given Baffert two starters, but was scratched a day earlier because of a foot injury. If Jaycito recovers, Baffert plans to run him in the April 23 Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland for his final Derby prep.
If all three make it to Louisville, he will have his hands full Derby week.
“I love that. I wish I had the whole field,” he said, smiling.
Comma to the Top, who led most of the way, returned $9.20 and $5.80.
Trainer Peter Miller had already said Comma to the Top wasn’t going to run on the first Saturday in May, and he reaffirmed that after the race.
Mr. Commons was another 2¼ lengths back in third and paid $3.60 to show. He was ridden by Mike Smith and trained by John Shirreffs, who were part of Zenyatta’s team.
Silver Medallion, the 5-2 favorite ridden by Gomez, was fourth.
“I thought Garrett gave him a great chance and I was disappointed that he didn’t pick it up from there,” trainer Steve Asmussen said. “It was a little crowded going into the first turn, but it sorted out perfectly for us, and he didn’t take advantage of it. I thought Garrett gave him every chance.”
Anthony’s Cross was fifth, followed by Indian Winter, Bench Points, Quail Hill and Offlee Wild Boys.
In the day’s other stakes, Liberian Freighter won the $150,000 Arcadia Stakes by a half-length; Cambina took the $150,000 Providencia Stakes by three-quarters of a length; and Separate Forest earned a neck win in the $100,000 Las Cienegas Handicap.