Charlatan: Derby contender or this week’s flavor?


There is no confusing trainer Bob Baffert’s latest debut winner with his Triple Crown champion Justify. Or is there?



After he won his six-furlong debut Sunday by a geared-down 5¾ lengths, Charlatan attracted enough steam from futures bettors to force his odds to as short as 14-1 to win the Kentucky Derby.


“We knew he was a really fast horse,” Baffert said the morning after Charlatan won at Santa Anita. “He still looks a little soft, but he was pretty impressive.”


So is Charlatan the next Justify? Will he follow the same short path that Baffert successfully and historically laid out two years ago? Or is he just a product of that phenomenon known by that hackneyed term “recency bias”? Could he then, instead of the next Derby winner, be another forgotten flash like, say, Hidden Scroll or Flashpoint?


His backers will point out that Charlatan’s 1:08.85 time Sunday earned him a Beyer Speed Figure of 105, easily the best of the current class of U.S. 3-year-olds – and one point better than Justify’s debut.


Bettors seized on this. As soon as global markets opened Monday, Charlatan opened with odds of 50-1 to win the Kentucky Derby. Within an hour he was bet down to 25-1. By the end of the day he was 20-1. By the end of the week he was 16-1. William Hill Nevada followed suit, establishing Charlatan’s Derby odds at 15-1 before cutting him to 14-1 late this week.


“This race gives us great hope,” Bob Liewald told the Santa Anita P.R. team Sunday. Liewald is one of the partners in Starlight Racing, an owner of Charlatan. That is the same Starlight Racing that had a piece of Justify.


Like Justify, Charlatan’s first race came in the middle of a February at Santa Anita. They both produced big Beyers. They both had exceptional workouts before their debuts. They were both a little slow out of the gate before taking the lead early and drawing away. And both had Drayden Van Dyke riding those first afternoon’s on the track.


“I really didn’t know that much about him,” Van Dyke said of Charlatan. “You could see he had a couple bullet works from the gate and that he’d been training well. He blew by those horses so easy, and as you could see he galloped out big.”


Charlatan was also big in the sales ring, costing $700,000 at the Keeneland yearling sale 1½ years ago. That was $200,000 more than Justify commanded at the same sale in 2016.


But now let the deconstruction begin – starting with the pedigree. Although both were sired by accomplished speed horses – Charlatan by Speightstown; Justify by Scat Daddy – their damsires had distinctly different racing styles and presumably different distance foundations. Justify was out of a mare by Ghostzapper, a four-time graded-stakes winner at distances of 8-10 furlongs. Charlatan is out of a broodmare by Quiet American, the late sire that went 2-for-4 in graded stakes with his victories coming at shorter distances – 8-8½ furlongs.


Both Justify and Charlatan were given little time to move toward the Derby from one-turn debuts against small fields. Charlatan, in fact, faced only three rivals Sunday and was not even the favorite for the race. That evokes skepticism that Justify’s example alone cannot erase.


Moreover, a big Beyer in a first race does not automatically translate into a Derby winner. The previously mentioned Hidden Scroll fired a 104 in his debut last year in the Gulfstream Park slop, wowing genuflecting futures bettors. But he was no better than third in his next three races for trainer Bill Mott, who was hailed for not putting horses in races without carrying high expectations.


Flashpoint got a 102 Beyer for his win in the 2011 Hutcheson sprint at Gulfstream Park, but his hope proved entirely false when he failed to finish in the money in the Florida Derby and later the Preakness.


Finally, there is something that a child of 5 could spot if the 2018 version of Justify could be lined up next to the current version of Charlatan. Justify weighed 1,270 pounds in the middle of his Triple Crown run. Charlatan was 1,150 pounds the morning of his win Sunday. Justify was a really, really big boy.


Seeing Baffert’s Hall of Fame name on the trainer line has undoubtedly proven influential to bettors, especially since he has had two Triple Crown winners in the past five years. But it is not like he is without other Derby hopefuls, namely San Vicente winner Nadal (10-1 at William Hill), two-time graded-stakes victor Thousand Words (12-1), Sham winner Authentic (14-1) and American Pharoah winner Eight Rings (15-1).


“I’ve got to figure out where I’m going to run them,” Baffert said. “Everybody keeps asking me every day. Things change, and I don’t want to jinx them.”


In the meantime, horseplayers are right there with Baffert trying to figure out the future. Instead of which horses will go to which preps, they have to weigh whether it is worth an obscenely short futures price to take a chance on any of them – and just how much recency bias is coloring their thinking.


There is also the fact that Justify was the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without a 2-year-old prep – and only the second ever. His success was more of a historical fluke than a 7.0 earthquake. To think that Charlatan can repeat the feat is to put a lot of faith that another exception to a 145-year rule lies in a colt that does not have much of a sample to go on.


Racing notes and opinions


When the undefeated and super-sized filly Taraz was euthanized after a training injury Monday at Oaklawn Park, Ark., she was the fourth choice at 15-2 in global futures to win the Kentucky Oaks. In a year that lacks a dominant 3-year-old colt, there was some thought that she could even challenge the boys, commanding odds of 33-1 in Derby futures. A Juddmonte Farms homebred by Into Mischief, Taraz was being prepared by trainer Brad Cox’s team for next month’s Grade 3 Honeybee Stakes when she broke her left-front pastern in a Monday morning workout.


Bast added to the attrition from the Kentucky Oaks when she was abruptly retired Thursday. Baffert said that she developed an injury in one of her ankles and that it would have taken maybe four months to recover. Even then Baffert said that there was no assurance that Bast would return to her old self – the self that won three Grade 1 races to be bet as short as 7-2 in Oaks futures. Sired by Uncle Mo, Bast will begin her breeding career right away in Kentucky for the owner Charles Chu and the Baoma Corporation.


This is the last weekend until April that there will be no U.S. points preps for the Kentucky Derby. But the third of four such races in Japan will be run this weekend. The Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse is scheduled for 12:25 a.m. EST Sunday – or 9:25 p.m. EST Saturday. Next month’s Fukuryu Stakes will be the last prep on Japan’s road to the Derby. One spot in the Churchill Downs gate is there for the taking if one of the top four points earners from Japan wants it. Last year Master Fencer accepted the invitation and finished seventh (promoted to sixth) in the Kentucky Derby.


The collective hue and cry about trainers who are red-flagged by medication positives is inconsistent, isn’t it? Lately there has been growing sentiment to let Rick Dutrow return to racing three years before his 10-year suspension is up. His supporters say that Dutrow, who trained Big Brown to two classic wins in 2008, was set up and made a scapegoat. Seven years ago conventional wisdom – and the New York State Racing and Wagering Board – branded Dutrow a serial offender. Meanwhile, the court of public opinion is leaning hard on Joe Sharp, who has had at least nine horses retroactively disqualified from recent results at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Sharp blames their failed drug tests on a de-worming medication. He was reportedly fined as much as $9,000, but he was not suspended. That led to a wave of social-media posts saying that Louisiana racing authorities were too soft on Sharp. Yes, the cases of Dutrow and Sharp are different and nuanced. Still, I cannot help but think that the wind around them blows right now in opposite directions.


Every time a racetrack is knocked down, I think of “There Used to Be a Ballpark,” the Frank Sinatra song from nearly a half-century ago. It was on my mind this week when I saw video of 73-year-old Portland Meadows being bulldozed. Owned by The Stronach Group and operated by Oregon businessman Travis Boersma, it hosted its final thoroughbred card last February. Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens was probably the biggest name to come out of Portland Meadows, winning two riding championships there in the early 1980s. The Portland Business Journal reported that Amazon plans to build a 150,000-square-foot warehouse on the site of the track. In a sign of the times, the track’s demolition was not covered by any TV news crew or local newspaper but, instead, through cell-phone video posted to social media that was shown later on traditional – and downsized – news outlets. With Portland Meadows gone, Grants Pass Downs, also operated by Boersma, is the last track in Oregon hosting horse races. It opened last year and is scheduled to start its 2020 spring-summer season in May.


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning – more frequently for big races – at You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at From lingering debate about the Eclipse Awards to betting on drug-free horse races, free-lance writer Tom Pedulla has strong opinions about hot-button issues in racing. Trainer Dale Romans discusses the comeback of his top Kentucky Derby prospect Dennis’ Moment in next week’s Fountain of Youth Stakes. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher and is sponsored by Xpressbet.

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