General Challenge, a gelding, won a key Derby prep at Santa Anita
It's been 70 years since a gelding won the Kentucky Derby—the last was Clyde Van Dusen, a son of mighty Man o' War, in 1929—but chances are strong that another will do it before the 20th century gallops to a close. If last Saturday's Santa Anita Derby is as sure a guide as it has been lately (the last two winners of the Kentucky Derby tuned up for Louisville with a strong showing at Santa Anita), an enormous, tightly strung chestnut gelding named General Challenge will wear the blanket of red roses at Churchill Downs on May 1.
In a performance as dominant as any seen in a Kentucky Derby prep race in years, the General, who answers to the unlikely nickname of Rodman, stalked the cantering pacemakers down the back-stretch, bounded to the front near the far turn and then drew away from the field, his ears pricking to the roar of the crowd, to win by 3� lengths over his Derby-bound stablemate, Prime Timber. Indeed, the only performance as memorable as the General's was the one turned in the same day by Bob Baffert, the trainer of the first two finishers, as he danced down the clubhouse steps toward the winner's circle, crowing all the way, "This is a runnin' sonofabitch!"
The man had ample reason to exult For the fourth year in a row he was heading to Kentucky loaded with talent. Baffert has won the last two runnings of the Derby—with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet last year—and he just missed scoring in 1996, when another gelding, Cavonnier, finished second to Grindstone by a nose. Baffert used the nine-furlong Santa Anita Derby as a final prep for his horses in all three years; Cavonnier won the race, and Silver Charm and Real Quiet ran second.
Baffert is looking to become the first trainer in history to saddle three consecutive winners of the Kentucky Derby. "Every once in a while I have to pull myself up, take a deep breath and say, 'Hey, you could be a farmer,' " he says. "It's pretty amazing to have all those good horses year after year."
General Challenge might be the most capable of them all. He certainly is the tallest. Loping along with immense strides, all legs and neck, he looks as if he belongs on the Serengeti Plain, eating leaves off the tops of trees. "The biggest horse I've ever trained," Baffert says. And one of the toughest. John Mabee, who bred and owns the horse with his wife, Betty, says General Challenge was gelded as a yearling as a way of calming him down, but he still has his roguish moments. The General was undefeated in three starts when jockey Gary Stevens encouraged Baffert to send the horse to the Louisiana Derby in New Orleans on March 14 for further seasoning. The General suffered a meltdown on the airplane, lost all focus in the post parade and never got into the hunt. He finished fifth.
"He suffered adversity for the first time," Baffert said before the Santa Anita Derby. "He broke horribly, took dirt in his face and then got tired. It was a good learning experience for him." Out of that defeat he earned his nickname. "We sent him to New Orleans, but he never showed up," says Baffert. "So we started calling him Rodman. It fits him. Like Dennis, he's very atliletic, and he's all legs when he runs."
To sharpen the General's focus on Saturday, Baffert took Stevens's advice and fitted the horse with blinkers. He was unruly in the paddock, but he never turned a hair once he got inside the gate, and he ran straight and hard and true. As Stevens pulled him to a stop in front of the winner's circle—"This horse has so much energy!" the rider called to Baffert—a grinning John Mabee materialized nearby.
"Hey, Rodman showed up today!" Baffert yelled at Mabee. "I told you I'd take you to the Kentucky Derby with this horse."
Baffert tapped the General's nose with his index finger. "You're Number 1, Rodman," he said.