It was American Pharoah who won the so-called "Grand Slam" for trainer Bob Baffert back in 2015. With this colt, the name may fit, too.
Rushed up from a rail draw in Sunday’s 6 1/2-furlong debut, Nadal -- as in, Rafael Nadal, the No. 1 tennis player in the world -- raced through an opening quarter mile in 21.88 seconds He then faced pressure to his outside while clicking through his 44.91-second half mile.
That rival faded, and as the rest of the pack looked apt to close at Santa Anita Park, the Bob Baffert trainee found another gear with just one touch of the whip by apprentice rider J.C. Diaz.
Nadal immediately looked apt for the 2020 Kentucky Derby Radar, which seeks to identify prospects for the preps early in their careers. A 98 Beyer Speed Figure confirmed it after the son of Blame finished up in 1:15.82.
George Bolton, Arthur Hoyeau, Barry Lipman and Mark Mathiesen campaign Nadal, a $700,000 purchase who should offer plenty going longer given he’s out of the Pulpit mare Ascending Angel.
That said, Jan. 19 is a bit late to get going, though hardly unprecedented for the Baffert barn just two years after Triple Crown winner Justify needed until February for his first out.
Nadal looked to be ready much earlier with works dating back to April of his 2-year-old season. Baffert told the Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free the colt injured himself during a routine ship, likely from Santa Anita to Del Mar where he could have debuted over the summer.
“He started kicking, and must have kicked so hard he got his left hind leg over the divider,” Baffert told Free. “I thought he might have broken something.”
There were no fractures, but Nadal went two and a half months between works, beginning to crank up for his unveiling on Sept. 29.
Race day wasn’t without its drama, either. Jockey Joel Rosario, who opened his weekend in Saudi Arabia, was late arriving back to Santa Anita, leading Baffert to opt with Diaz, who has become a go-to rider as of late.
Nadal paid $4.40 — it would have been lower with Rosario aboard — with 9-2 shot Exaulted from the Peter Eurton barn also one to watch from this flight after closing late for second.
Nadal adds to another solid group for Baffert, whose other 3-year-olds of note include Grade 1 winner Eight Rings, Grade 2 winner Thousand Words and Grade 3 winners Authentic and High Velocity. Baffert has won five Kentucky Derbys, one short of the all-time record, and it shapes up as another interesting spring where he’ll play racing manager as much as trainer in separating prospects to earn their qualifying points.