January 24, 2021

Who is Charlatan?

Charlatan 2020 Arkansas Derby
Charlatan wins the 2020 Arkansas Derby Division 1 (Coady Photography)

Horseplayers all over the country are trying to answer that question this week, in anticipation of his return Saturday in the Malibu. In a year that set up uncommonly well for a late bloomer, he looked like a leading Kentucky Derby contender. But, a week shy of his four-year-old year, the Malibu (G1) will be Charlatan’s first start in almost even months, and it’s time to take stock of what we know — and what we don’t know — about him.

Let’s start with what we do know about Charlatan.

We know he has pedigree power. He is by Speightstown out of the Quiet American mare Authenticity. We know Speightstown is a top-class sire, a sprinter whose foals have been able to carry their speed for longer than just the blink of an eye, especially when there’s some stamina underneath. And, we know Charlatan has that. Charlatan’s dam Authenticity was a multiple graded stakes winner going two turns on dirt, and his stakes-winning half-sister Hanalei Moon prefers two turns on the lawn

We know Charlatan has speed. In three races, as short as six furlongs and as long as a mile and an eighth, he has carried his speed well clear of the field at every single call

We even know Charlatan’s trainer Bob Baffert has been able to do this before, to bring a horse from a long layoff to win the Malibu. Though his other two wins in the race came with horses last seen in the Breeders’ Cup, he won the 2013 Malibu with Shakin It Up, unseen since the Sunland Derby in March.

We also know the Malibu was not the first time Baffert ever thought to send Charlatan short against good horses. In late May, Baffert changed Charlatan’s plans, suggesting that he would point toward the seven-furlong Woody Stephens (G1) instead of the nine-furlong Belmont

But, what do we really know? Coming into the Malibu, Charlatan brings up a litany of questions.

How has he recovered from his ankle chips?

He went to the sidelines for surgery at the beginning of June. As far as we can tell, he seems to be holding up well; he has worked at Santa Anita every five or six days for the last month, and posted drills before that as well. From that perspective, signs are as good as they can be without a race.

How has he trained on?

An orchestrated drill with a hand-picked workmate doesn’t always translate to race-day performance. He faces his stablemate Thousand Words, son of a multiple graded stakes winning sprinter, who looked on the way up in the Shared Belief Stakes in August. He faces Collusion Illusion, already a Grade 1 winner against older horses. He faces Nashville, rising star of the sprint division, a horse who didn’t debut until four months after Charlatan’s last race. Even Independence Hall and Express Train, whose best recent form has come in allowances, have both a recency edge and good form against older horses.

How does Charlatan handle a battle?

He has not gotten the opportunity to answer this question yet, and it’s an important one as he goes on to face horses who are either more seasoned than he is, more developed, or both. Chances are as good as ever that he will have to fight in the Malibu. The fight may start from the very beginning: Charlatan has never run a race in which he did not get a clear lead early. With the fleet-footed Nashville drawn just inside him, chances are good that Charlatan gets outsprinted to the lead. And, whether he proves he can rate or he finds enough hustle to outgun Nashville, Charlatan will find tougher, more seasoned horses than ever trying to reel him in down the lane.

So, who is Charlatan? We don’t know yet, but the Malibu will bring us closer to an answer.