By Rory Carroll
ARCADIA, Calif. (Reuters) – Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert will look to claim a record-extending fourth Breeders’ Cup Classic with McKinzie at Santa Anita Park on Saturday although victory for the favorite is far from guaranteed.
Baffert won the Classic in 2014 with Bayern, in 2015 with American Pharoah and in 2016 with Arrogate but said the colt McKinzie holds a special place in his heart.
The chestnut son of Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense is named after Baffert’s longtime friend, the racing executive Brad McKinzie, who died of cancer in 2017 at age 62.
McKinzie, who has seven wins in 13 career starts, has earned more than $2.2 million and the normally-stoic Baffert said he gets emotional when he watches the horse compete.
“I think we’re all living through this horse, thinking about Brad. He’s got a lot of friends,” Baffert said this week.
“I feel a little extra pressure on me when this horse runs because I know we’re all thinking about him.”
In a surprising move, Baffert chose to replace Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who has ridden McKinzie in all of his previous starts, with Joel Rosario after the colt earned four second-place finishes in six starts.
“It’s one of those things where I go with instinct, my gut feeling,” Baffert told reporters.
“I was very frustrated and I just felt maybe I had to make a change. Like a (baseball) manager, have to take the ball from an All-Star pitcher.”
Although McKinzie is expected to be the favorite among the 11 horses competing in Saturday’s $6 million Classic, the field is considered one of the more wide open in the race’s history.
Among those expected to push McKinzie is Code of Honor, a colt with an excellent resume but who drew the outside post.
Trainer Shug McGaughey said he is happy with how the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, who will be rode by Hall of Fame jockey John Velazquez, moved on the track this week.
McGaughey, who is winless in eight starts in the Classic, said he hopes to end that streak on Saturday.
“There are two really major races in the United States that I haven’t won, the Preakness and the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” the Hall of Fame trainer said.
“I’ve been close in both of them, so they’re both on my list. I hope that maybe this year we can get the one behind us.”
No one would be surprised if Vino Rosso was first to cross the wire after the four-year-old notched a 1 1/4-mile victory at Santa Anita at the Gold Cup in May.
Reigning Preakness Stakes champion War of Will could also break out of his recent slump and claim the win.
Some $30 million will be up for grabs in the 14 races held on Friday and Saturday.
The Breeders’ Cup normally averages about $160 million in bets over the two days, race officials said.
(Reporting by Rory Carroll; Editing by Toby Davis)