Los Alamitos and Indiana Grand may not be America’s most storied racetracks, but after Saturday, each has a chance to produce the 3-year-old male champion of 2019. A few hours and a couple thousand miles apart, Game Winner and Mr. Money threw their bridles into the ring for an Eclipse Award with easy wins in the Los Alamitos Derby and Indiana Derby respectively.
“I think this was a perfect race for him,” declared trainer Bob Baffert after Game Winner’s dominant win in the Grade 3 Los Alamitos Derby.
The son of Candy Ride needed the confidence building victory after beginning his second season with three consecutive defeats. All three, hard fought seconds in the Rebel Stakes and the Santa Anita Derby, before a late, very wide run left him 3 3/4-lengths short in the Kentucky Derby, were good efforts, but Game Winner needed to regain his winning ways. In a short field yesterday, Game Winner did it in style.
An undefeated champion as a juvenile, Game Winner donned blinkers for his first race in more than two months. “I put the blinkers back on him because I wanted him to get a little bit more focused leaving the gate and into the race a little bit more. He was falling back a little too far,” said Baffert.
No such problems yesterday for the horse who dropped way back early in the Kentucky Derby. The bay colt stayed close to the early pace under regular rider, Joel Rosario. Tracking stablemate Kingly into the far turn, Game Winner easily moved up to the lead straightening out for the stretch run. From there he briefly battled longshot Parsimony for the lead, before powerfully drawing away to a five-length victory in racehorse time of 1:48.30 for the 1 1/8 miles.
His trainer liked what he saw from his champion, as he looked forward to bigger things to come. “He had worked exceptionally well coming into this. I think that break really helped him. I love the way he finished the last eighth of a mile. I told (Rosario) to give him an easy out, but try to get something out of the race and have a little foundation. The plan right now is the Travers,” said Baffert.
While Game Winner was winning last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and clinching a championship, Mr. Money was finishing a solid fourth as a much less heralded commodity. It took a few starts for the Bret Calhoun trained colt to get going again in 2019, but he is clearly rolling now.
Sent off as the 9-10 post-time favorite in the field of 11 on the strength of back-to-back impressive wins in the Grade 3 Pat Day Mile and the Grade 3 Matt Winn Stakes, Mr. Money had a few anxious moments caused by a loose horse in the race, but not even the riderless runner could prevent another easy victory for the streaking son of Goldencents.
Stalking and pouncing from his outside post, Mr. Money cruised to a decisive third straight win in a graded stakes, with a 2 1/2-length score over second place Gray Magician in the $500,000 Indiana Derby. Final time for the 8 1/2 furlongs was a sharp 1:41.80
Once again he impressed his regular rider. “I was trying to get him to relax and when I asked him to get the job done, he exploded,” explained his pilot, Gabriel Saez.
While it can be easily said that Mr. Money is the hottest 3-year-old in the country, you can’t win championships without facing the best. He skipped the Triple Crown races, but it may be time for him to test the best again. “We’ll see how he comes out of this race and make a decision,” said Calhoun. “The West Virginia Derby is a little quick, coming back in three weeks. But then you get a good break to the Pennsylvania Derby. Or we can decide to go to Saratoga for the Travers and take on the top echelon.”
Game Winner has already been at the top of the heap, and on Saturday, he announced his attentions to return there. His challengers the rest of the way will be numerous, including the likes of Maximum Security, War of Will, Code of Honor, Omaha Beach and Tacitus. Will Mr. Money join the championship fray? In his last three, he has given every indication of being good enough to do just that.
Photo of Game Winner courtesy of Benoit Photo
Photo of Mr. Money courtesy of John C. Engelhardt/JR Communications