"Who died?" When Bob Baffert hears the phone ring at 5:40 a.m., that's the first thought that registers in his brain, especially coming the day before a $350,000, grade I stakes. Baffert's early morning hours are not usually interrupted in such a manner for salutations or cheery news. So, in that respect, the news that El Corredor's quarter crack had popped open could have been a lot worse.
As Baffert cleared away the cobwebs, the picture became clear. El Corredor, one of the leading contenders for the Nov. 25 Cigar Mile, had opened a quarter crack that was thought to be under control. There was a little bit of blood, but the colt was walking sound. Tonja Terranova, Baffert's New York caretaker, called assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes at Santa Anita, who in turn called Baffert. The good news was that quarter crack guru Ian McKinlay had patched up the foot and it was looking pretty good.
Last fall, Baffert received a similar call about River Keen's quarter crack, and the old boy went out the next day with his newly patched foot, compliments of McKinlay, and won the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). So, Baffert said, "If it looks OK, go for it."
Baffert was unable to attend the Cigar Mile, as he was scheduled to speak at the American Association of Equine Practitioners convention in San Antonio at 8:30 the morning after the race. In fact, not many people can remember the last time the Big Apple was graced by Baffert's presence.
"He can win without me," Baffert said. "I've got my trusty Mexican and Tonja there."
Baffert was convinced El Corredor was the best horse in the race, despite the 3-year-old son of Mr. Greeley having to go up against classy older horses such as Affirmed Success, Golden Missile, and Forty One Carats, and top 3-year-olds More Than Ready, Left Bank, and Bevo.
Baffert depends a lot on bloodstock agent J.B. McKathan, who initially picks out, and then breaks, most of Baffert's young horses, along with his brother, Kevin. So, when McKathan keeps using words like "awesome" and "super" to describe El Corredor, you know there's something special there. McKathan first lay eyes on El Corredor at the 1998 Keeneland September yearling sale and it was love at first sight.
Baffert also liked him and bought the colt for himself for $110,000, then sold him to Hal Earnhardt, one of Baffert's first clients. Earnhardt, not known for being a big spender at the sales, decided to splurge this time.
"I'm the cheap guy of the bunch," Earnhardt said. "That's the most money I ever paid for a colt. J.B. told me, 'You'll never have another shot with a horse that looks like this.' He's been in love with him from day one."
"If you were to take a picture of the perfect horse, in my eyes, it would be him," McKathan said. "He's the one you want them all to look like. He has perfect balance, he moves perfectly, and he's so athletic-looking. I never worked him fast, but I could tell right away he was a runner."
Earnhardt and his family decided to name the colt El Corredor, which means "the runner" in Spanish.
El Corredor went into the Cigar Mile off only six career starts. He took a four-race winning streak into the Sept. 23 Jerome Handicap (gr. II), coming off a brilliant score over older horses in the Del Mar Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II). In the Jerome, he got clear late after being trapped along the rail and made a good run to finish second to Fusaichi Pegasus. Following the race, his quarter crack opened during a gallop and Baffert gave him some time off. After six solid works, including a seven-furlong drill in 1:23 3/5, Baffert decided to try him in the Cigar Mile off a two-month layoff.
When Earnhardt called McKathan and told him El Corredor was running, McKathan looked up at a sunny Florida sky, thought about cold, dreary New York for a split second, then said emphatically, "I'm coming. I will be there."
The race turned into an arena for redemption, as the connections of More Than Ready and Golden Missile decided to postpone their horses' retirements after defeats in the Breeders' Cup in the hope they could go out a winner in a grade I race. And Affirmed Success, winner of last year's Cigar Mile, was being put back on the dirt after five consecutive grass races, including a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), in which he was beaten in a blanket finish.
But it was El Corredor, breaking from the far outside in the 11-horse field, who was sent off as the 2-1 favorite under Jerry Bailey. More Than Ready was next at 3-1, with Affirmed Success 4-1. Left Bank and Forty One Carats battled through an opening quarter in :23.14, then the pace began to heat up, as Bevo, El Corredor, and Affirmed Success closed in. After a half in :45.97 and three-quarters in 1:10.07, Left Bank still held a narrow lead over Forty One Carats, with El Corredor a menacing presence on the outside. Affirmed Success, full of run, tried to come through on the inside, but the hole closed up and jockey Jorge Chavez had to steady his horse and wait for something to open.
El Corredor, with clear sailing, blew by the top two and opened a one-length lead at the eighth pole, but a new challenge emerged from the 46-1 Peeping Tom, an improving 3-year-old gelding who was coming off back-to-back seven-furlong allowance victories in New York. El Corredor, as he had done in the Jerome, refused to change leads, and Peeping Tom roared up alongside him. Bailey switched to a left-handed whip, and El Corredor finally switched over to his right lead and quickly bounded clear to win by 1 3/4 lengths, covering the mile in a sharp 1:34.68 over a "fast" track that had been playing slow all day. Affirmed Success finally found room and closed well to finish third, a neck behind Peeping Tom.
El Corredor's victory capped off a sensational year for the 3-year-olds, who defeated their elders in the Cigar Mile, Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), Jockey Club Gold Cup, Goodwood Handicap (gr. II), Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), and Del Mar Breeders' Cup (gr. II). They also were one-two in the Cigar Mile and Goodwood, and one-two-three-four in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
It also made Fusaichi Pegasus' victory in the Jerome all the more impressive, as El Corredor and third-place finisher Albert the Great both came off that race to win grade I stakes against older horses.
As for El Corredor, Baffert said he's "coming back to papa." There's a good chance he'll return to New York next May for the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I). Even Baffert may show up for that one.
)Continued. . . .