Jockey Rafael Bejarano guides Power Broker to victory in the Grade I $250,000… (Benoit Photo )
Saturday at Santa Anita was a great day for Bob Baffert, for Baffert fans, and for fans of soap opera drama.
Baffert, a long-proven masterful trainer of thoroughbreds, won three of the five Grade I races, each worth $250,000, that qualified the winner for an all-expenses-paid trip and entry into the Breeders' Cup. The other two? He didn't have an entry.
For Baffert, that "all-expenses-paid" gimmick is more like a bonus. His owners still get the money, but the trip from Baffert's barn to the Santa Anita track, where the Breeders' Cup will be held this year and next, is a couple of hundred yards.
This year's Breeders' Cup, offering prize money of $25.5 million spread over 15 races, will bless the Great Race Place on Nov. 2 and 3.
Baffert's Game On Dude, a 5-year-old gelding, won for the ninth time in 20 starts, passed the $3-million mark in career winnings and won a return trip to the big daddy of the Breeders' Cup, the $5-million Classic. His victory was in the Awesome Again Stakes. Last year, Game On Dude lost by a length and a half to Drosselmeyer in the Classic at Churchill Downs. Clearly, Baffert and team are looking for a reversal of fortunes there.
"This was a good prep for him," the silver-haired trainer said. "He came back fine, not tired at all."
Baffert also won with Executiveprivilege. That was in the Chandelier Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, leading to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, and it was her fifth win in five outings. That increased Executiveprivilege's winnings to $550,000, not bad for a horse still a month away from her first Breeders' Cup eligibility.
Baffert's third Grade I victory was with Power Broker in the Frontrunner Stakes, which is for 2-year-olds and leads to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Baffert seemed most proud of that victory.
"I really like him," he said. "I took him to Del Mar, and he disappointed me. But if horses don't like it at Del Mar, they won't do much."
The other two Grade I winners were Love And Pride, trained by an absentee Todd Pletcher, who trains mostly in the East. That was Zenyatta Stakes, for fillies and mares, that brings entry in the $2-million Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic.
The Rodeo Stakes, leading to the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, went to Marketing Mix, trained by Thomas Proctor and ridden nicely from behind by Garrett Gomez.
But the real riding feat came from Rafael Bejarano, who rode all of Baffert's stakes winners and added a fourth victory when he got Byrama home in the closing $70,000 Unzip Me Stakes.
Bejarano was one element of the day's soap opera.
His ride aboard Game On Dude was as a replacement for Chantal Sutherland. Jockeys get replaced all the time, but Sutherland is among the sport's highest-profile female jockeys.
In addition, Bejarano took a spectacular spill Friday on the meet's opening day and didn't ride the rest of his mounts. But he escaped with bumps and bruises and was ready to go Saturday for Baffert.
"When he went down, it was not good," Baffert said. "If it had been on the old synthetic track, he would have broken a collarbone. Victor Espinoza did a great job of missing him. He was here this morning, ready to go."
And then there was the Baffert/Doug O'Neill/Mark Verge soap opera.
Richard's Kid is a 7-year-old with 11 wins — including the 2010 Pacific Classic at Del Mar — and more than $2 million in winnings. He was trained by Baffert until late August. Then, a group headed by Verge, Santa Anita's chief executive, bought the horse just before the Pacific Classic and transferred it to the barn of Verge's close friend, O'Neill. O'Neill's horse, I'll Have Another, won the first two legs of the Triple Crown last year. Baffert's Bodemeister was second in each.
At the time of Richard Kid's sale, Baffert said, "I felt like somebody picked my pocket."
Game On Dude finished second in this year's Pacific Classic, behind Dullahan. Richard's Kid was third.
Saturday, Richard's Kid was third again, and Baffert was greeted in the winner's circle by Santa Anita President George Haines, who shook Baffert's hand and said, with a smile, "Mark couldn't make it, so you have to settle for me."
Asked about it, Baffert said, "I like George. I was happy he was here. I have a great deal of respect for him."
So, on what might one day become one of the bigger days in racing, with five Grade I races on one card, a crowd of 17,565 got heat, sunshine and celebrity training excellence from Baffert.
Not to mention a little "As The World Turns."