amNY at the Track | Belmont Derby and Oaks preview, plus Bob Baffert’s ongoing suspension from Churchill Downs

Belmont Derby contender Kalik
Kalik, winner of the Pennine Ridge Stakes at Belmont Park on June 3, is a contender in the July 8 Belmont Derby Invitational.
NYRA/Walter Wlodarczyk

The last big card at Belmont Park this year features Saturday’s Belmont Derby Invitational and Belmont Oaks — two turf races for three-year-old colts and fillies, respectively, that serve as an all-turf Triple Crown for the generation.

As in past years, the Belmont Derby and Oaks fields this year boast turf runners born and/or based in Europe. Five of the nine runners in the Belmont Derby originated in France or Ireland, while four of the 11 Belmont Derby entrants hail from either Ireland or Great Britain.

In the Oaks, Mission of Joy looks like the one to beat, as she comes in off a sterling performance last out in the Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs. She took the lead with ease at the top of the stretch in the nine-furlong race on the Churchill turf, and drew off looking like a horse who wants more distance. Tyler Gaffalione will come in from Kentucky to ride Mission of Joy for trainer Graham Motion. 

Another local favorite might be Prerequisite, the hard-fought winner of the Wonder Again Stakes at Belmont last out under Irad Ortiz Jr. for trainer Chad Brown, who always has great turf horses. Prerequisite won from the front, but the filly by Upstart held off the late charging Be Your Best, who’s also in the Belmont Oaks, in the stretch — an indication that Prerequisite might be distance-limited.

As tough as Mission of Joy looks in this one, Aspray might be prime to pull off an upset. Trained by Brown and ridden by Flavien Prat, Aspray closed strongly in winning the Hilltop Stakes at Pimlico last out, and she’s got the speed and pedigree (by Quality Road out of a Galileo colt) to relish both the distance and the turf.

Odds via New York Racing Association

Our picks: Aspray, Mission of Joy, Be Your Best

Regarding the Belmont Derby, two European-based horses look tough to beat: The Foxes comes in off a fifth-place effort in the Epsom Derby for trainer Andrew Balding and jockey Oisin Murphy, while Silver Knott, who finished third in the Pennine Ridge Stakes at Belmont last out for trainer Charlie Appelby, will get a crack at redeeming himself in his second start stateside under jockey Richard Mullen.

In the Epsom Derby (England’s version of the Kentucky Derby), The Foxes settled in the back of the pack for much of the 12-furlong race before making his move toward the lead midway through. Despite a sustained rally midstretch in the shadow of the eventual winner, Auguste Rodin, The Foxes could not keep up and wound up settling for fifth.

The cutback in distance and the softer competition, however, should play to The Foxes favor in the Belmont Derby. Silver Knott, meanwhile, had a slow start and all sorts of traffic trouble in the Pennine Ridge but closed strongly to get third. He’ll relish the extra furlong here.

If you’re looking for an upset chance here, Webslinger might be the one to pick. Trained by Mark Casse and ridden by Kentucky Derby champion Javier Castellano, Webslinger showed a quick turn of foot last out in Churchill Downs’ Audubon Stakes, grabbing the lead at the top of the stretch and kicking away powerfully despite drifting toward the rail. He has plenty of speed and pedigree to get the Belmont Derby distance, and looms a threat.

Odds via New York Racing Association

Our picks: The Foxes, Silver Knott, Webslinger

Commentary: Baffert suspension should have ended

Bob Baffert nominates two horses to Haskell Stakes
FILE – Horse trainer Bob Baffert leaves federal court, Monday, July 12, 2021, in Brooklyn. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Trainer Bob Baffert paid a heavy price after his colt Medina Spirit, the 2021 Kentucky Derby winner, tested positive for a banned substance and was subsequently disqualified.

Churchill Downs Incorporated (CDI), which operates the track of the same name and host of the Kentucky Derby, took the right steps in 2021 by banning Baffert for the next two years. One of the most prolific trainers in the country could no longer enter a horse in the Kentucky Derby, forcing owners of Derby-eligible horses to transfer them to other trainers’ barns.

Other racing circuits like the Maryland Jockey Club and the New York Racing Association, which control the other two legs of the Triple Crown, followed suit for about a year. But this year, while Churchill Downs maintained its suspension of Baffert, the Maryland Jockey Club and NYRA permitted Baffert to return – and he wound up training National Treasure to a Preakness Stakes victory, followed by a fourth-place effort in the Belmont Stakes.

Despite having been permitted to run horses at other tracks across America, Baffert will remain persona non grata at Churchill Downs and other CDI tracks in 2024. The corporation continued its suspension of Baffert for at least another year, citing ongoing concerns over the safety and well-being of the thoroughbreds in his care.

Yet the Maryland Jockey Club, NYRA and other circuits have not, as of this writing, similarly extended or reinstated any suspension of Baffert. So what gives?

Baffert continues to maintain he has been “open and forthcoming” about the Medina Spirit case, and is at a loss as to why his Churchill Downs suspension remains. “In the interest of the sport we all love,” he wrote on Twitter July 3, “I have made no public comments on this unfortunate episode for an extended period of time, so the suggestion that I ‘continue to peddle a false narrative’ is patently false.”

The public has every right to be skeptical of any trainer caught breaking the rules when it comes to horse doping. Baffert, despite his accomplishments, is not immune to such skepticism, and he’ll have to wear the Medina Spirit disqualification as a badge of dishonor for the rest of his career.

Yet Baffert paid the price for the violation, and then some. Unless and until someone comes forth with evidence that Baffert broke more rules and regulations, Churchill Downs doesn’t have much of an excuse to keep him barred from the Kentucky Derby’s home — especially when other circuits still welcome him.

CDI has bigger problems to worry about than Baffert, at this point, such as the safety of the Churchill Downs surface itself. A dozen horses died racing or training there this spring — so many that CDI preempted the meet and moved operations to Ellis Park while examining the course. 

The situation again speaks to something which prominent thoroughbred owner Mike Repole called for on Belmont Stakes Day: a national racing commissioner who can administer a universal set of rules and regulations fairly and consistently to every jockey, trainer and racing circuit in America.

Truly, that commissioner would be someone acting in the best interest of both the horses and the sport.