This week’s Cunningham File is brought to you by the letters BB and the number 17. Bob Baffert and Bolshoi Ballet have dominated headlines for wildly differing reasons, while next Monday marks a crucial date in the calendar as racecourses finally open their doors to the public again.
It all boils down to the simple question of whether you think Bob Baffert is the unluckiest trainer around or a serial cheat.
But buying into Baffert is getting ever harder after his Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit delivered the latest and most painful gut-punch to American racing's battered image by testing positive for an anti-inflammatory drug.
Donald Trump, who knows a bit about bending rules to win big races, released a statement saying "so now even our Kentucky Derby winner is a junky" before adding "this is emblematic of what is happening to our country."
Leaving aside the fact that the Donald was the man in charge of running that country for most of the last four years, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Baffert has torn several pages from the Trump playbook in a bizarre series of attempts to clear his name.
It’s there in grandiose claims that he is the face of the sport; it’s there in a willingness to throw staff under the bus for supposedly contaminating horses through medication contact or peeing in the stables; it’s there in thinly veiled hints of a sinister witch hunt; and it was most certainly there in a cringeworthy Fox News segment which saw him blame cancel culture for this latest embarrassment.
The urgency of Baffert’s media tour once news of Medina Spirit’s positive test emerged suggests he knows that a doped Derby winner represents something altogether different to his alarmingly long list of previous infractions.
And he’s dead right. American racing is used to being treated with a jaundiced eye by the wider public because of persistent drug issues but, with Trump lashing out and various high-profile talk shows and podcasts lampooning this latest sorry saga, the sport is straying dangerously close to becoming a laughing stock.
One of the many clips fired out after the Derby featured a grinning Baffert asking "can you believe this s***?" or words to that effect.
Depressingly, a mounting pile of smelly stuff means that, with this guy, it’s getting increasingly hard to know what to believe.
A call from the saddle, a powerful surge and, just like that, the mists surrounding the Cazoo Derby picture melted away.
Aidan O’Brien’s Bolshoi Ballet is now a best-priced 7/4 for the Cazoo Derby after last Sunday’s runaway Leopardstown success and that position looks entirely justified for numerous reasons.
Saturday’s biggest races at Newbury don’t make huge appeal as betting races but they could play a major part in shaping John and Thady Gosden’s summer, with Palace Pier a standout in the Al Shaqab Lockinge (3.35) if he’s at his best and 2019 Leger hero Logician on the comeback trail against dangerous Al Aasy in the Al Rayyan Stakes (2.25).
As such the BetVictor London Gold Cup (3.00) will loom large on many a punting radar it’s no exaggeration to say this has been one of Britain’s flagship handicaps for a decade or more, with Green Moon, Al Kazeem, Cannock Chase and Defoe achieving G1 glory after winning it and Time Test and Headman using it as a springboard to G2 success.
Progressive horses from major yards like Bay Bridge, Tamborrada and Highland Rocker dominate the market this time but what if this year’s field doesn’t contain anything with real star potential?
It’s very hard to split those at the top of the market and there could be mileage in looking beyond the obvious for an improver at the bottom of the weights that might have been missed by the market.
Mick Channon’s Greystoke fills the bill at 20/1. True, he’s more exposed than most on the face of it after nine runs but he’s won his last two in good style and caught the eye quickening nicely to get out of a pocket in a fair race at Redcar last time.
There won’t be any fancy prices about Jumby in Newmarket’s Heed Your Hunch at Betway Handicap (3.15) but he still makes plenty of appeal at 3/1 or 7/2.
Eve Johnson Houghton’s Commonwealth Cup entry has made strong progress since his impressive winning debut at Ascot last summer, racing a bit too freely against smart rivals over seven and a mile then going into many a notebook over this course and distance at the Craven Meeting.
Jumby took time to find room that day then came home best of all for third, giving the strong impression that he’s still on the up. The form is notably strong, with the winner and fifth scoring since, and the booking of William Buick for the first time means everything is in place for him to play a leading role.
It won’t involve a Derby winner or a doping story but May 17th is a date that’s been ringed on the Cunningham calendar throughout the back end of a dark winter and a distinctly cool spring.
In the interests of full disclosure it should be said that there was also a ring around April 12th – when pubs re-opened for outdoor service – and I haven’t paid a single visit yet because of chilly weather.
But the fact that crowds can return to racecourses in phased manner from Monday means a priceless piece of Britain’s sporting jigsaw finally falls back into place.
An appointment with a second shot of Astra Zeneca’s finest will delay my ability to get back on track as a fan/punter rather than a TV gasbag but the list of things I’m looking forward to is as long as the line at any vaccination centre.
I’m eager to visit my local course Haydock for the first time in a couple of years to see a few old faces and hover for clues around that tree-lined paddock.
I’m eager to cross the Pennines to Ponte and Thirsk to hear Peter and Mick Easterby hold court.
And, perhaps most of all, I’m looking forward to a jolly day at York followed by that famous walk back to town with girls carrying their shoes and asking long-suffering Knavesmire cricketers if they can have a bat.
Speaking of York, the first two days of the Dante meeting have produced the usual mix of potential stars and likely lads to note in handicaps.
Duke of York hero Starman and runaway Westow Stakes winner Winter Power promise to add depth to a sprint division that has ample room at the top, while Ilaraab’s dominant performance from a mark of 102 in Wednesday’s opener was impressive on every level.
Jawwaal caught the Timeform team’s eye with good reason in Thursday’s opener, while Lydford looks a name to note after a very encouraging fourth in the hot 0-85 that closed Wednesday’s card.
Roger Varian’s gelding kept on galloping from well off the pace and, as a close relative of Big Orange, he’s surely going to progress again once he stretches out beyond a mile and a half.
Cowboy on the right trail
It was apt that Hong Kong Harry wore Richard Fahey’s own silks when giving him his 3000th training success at Ayr on Tuesday and Carter Cowboy can carry the same colours to victory soon judged on a promising third at Beverley earlier in the day. This good-looking gelding is by Iffraaj – sire of Fahey stars Ribchester and Wootton Bassett – and caught the eye travelling powerfully for a long way on ground more testing than the official good to soft suggested. He’s sure to capitalise on a mark in the high 60s and is potentially an 80 plus horse before summer is out.
Magnolia brings painful memories
Red faces in Goodwood’s PR dept as the unveiling of this year’s well connected Magnolia Cup riders produced a couple of Influencers and someone called Goose but nothing to satisfy those who value diversity. The fact that the announcement came on the same day that major stakeholders made a commitment to inclusion was almost but not quite as funny as some of the po-faced reaction to the news on Twitter. Still, the MC has raised £1.6m for charity – which is on a par with what I had to pay out when a supermodel in bespoke silks thwarted my gamble on Emma Spencer in one of the early renewals. Grrr.
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