By pretty much any standard of handicapping analysis, Nadal should have fallen to defeat in the $200,500 San Vicente (G2) on Sunday at Santa Anita.
The massive son of Blame was favored at 3-10 off an eye-catching maiden victory three weeks ago, but nothing went his way in the 7-furlong San Vicente. Facing a quality field led by champion 2-year-old and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner Storm the Court, Nadal broke slowly and had to be urged into early contention. Then he locked horns with the speedy longshots Ginobili and Party Town, racing between them through a blazing quarter-mile in :21.81.
The pace remained intense through a half-mile in :44.09, which would have exhausted most horses. Even Nadal’s Hall of Fame of trainer Bob Baffert expected the favorite to weaken—“I trained him light for this,” Baffert later told Santa Anita. “…I thought he was gonna get beat.”
But when the going got tough, Nadal got going. Although he was headed by Ginobili around the turn, Nadal fought back valiantly under urging from jockey Joel Rosario, reclaiming the advantage inside the eighth pole. Having struck the winning blow, Nadal gradually forged clear in the final yards to prevail by three-quarters of a length in 1:22.59.
Ginobili held for second by 1 1/4 lengths over the late-charging Fast Enough, who edged Storm the Court by a neck for third place.
Speaking of Nadal, Rosario told Santa Anita “he handled the pressure from the outside. I was never worried about it. My horse was moving very well and I was confident because I could feel I had a lot of horse under me.”
Purchased for $700,000 as a 2-year-old-in-training, Nadal races for the partnership of George Bolton, Arthur Hoyeau, Barry Lipman, and Mark Mathiesen. Having passed his first test against stakes company, Nadal will soon stretch out in distance on the Road to the Kentucky Derby. According to Baffert, a change in running style might also be in order.
“Today, I told Joel, don’t get cute, just go,” said Baffert. “We can rate him some other day. They took it to him, but if we’re gonna get beat, get beat… He got to gut it out today, so he’s got a good foundation now. This should set him up pretty good and I think we’ll go to the Rebel.”
The Rebel (G2), a 1 1/16-mile event on Mar. 14 at Oaklawn Park, offers 50 Kentucky Derby qualification points to the winner. Baffert has won the lucrative race on six occasions, including in 2015 with Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
Handicappers are already betting on Nadal to follow in American Pharoah’s footsteps. Despite his relative inexperience, Nadal closed as the 8-1 co-individual favorite in Kentucky Derby Future Wager Pool 2.