By Emily Shields
Shortly after three-year-old Venetian Harbor cruised by 9 ¼ lengths in the Las Virgenes (G2) at Santa Anita Saturday, a member of the team involved with the filly suggested she run against males next, since there was no one in the division to fear.
“The horse to be afraid of is Nadal,” trainer Bob Baffert commented nearby.
24 hours later, Nadal justified the hype by taking the seven-furlong San Vicente Stakes (G2) in just his second start. No sooner had the 1-5 favorite crossed the wire than the voices of the critics chorused with the believers. Was Nadal’s win something special, or something ordinary?
Nadal was a hype horse very early on, and was nearing his debut before injuring himself in a horse trailer by catching his hind leg on the divider inside. The setback required him to be off from July until September, but trainer Baffert slowly rounded the son of Blame – Ascending Angel, by Pulpit back into form. He debuted January 19, winning by 3 3/4-lengths while leading and widening throughout.
An original target was the February 17 Southwest Stakes (G3) at Oaklawn Park, which is worth a staggering $750,000 and offers points towards the 2020 Kentucky Derby. The one-turn San Vicente had a purse of just $200,000 and no points towards the Derby, but it’s where Nadal was rerouted anyway after a series of strong gallops.
To some it appeared that in winning the San Vicente, Nadal had to work “harder” than was expected, seeing as he beat 12-1 shot Ginobili by less than a length.
But Ginobili is no slouch himself; the horses he defeated in winning at Del Mar on August 17 read like a virtual who’s-who of classy sophomores in California, including Honor A.P., Taishan, Tizamagician, and Bronn. He was fourth just 16 days later in the strange Del Mar Futurity (G1) where Eight Rings lost the rider and Ginobili was bumped in the lane. He was also fourth in a turf stakes last out, beaten just a length and a quarter behind El Tigre Terrible, who was named California’s Champion Two Year Old Male.
Ginobili set the pace through fractions of :21.81 and :44.09, with Nadal clinging to him and actually scooting away on the backstretch before Ginobili came back alongside. Despite being the lesser experienced of the two, Nadal dug deep and turned Ginobili away, scoring by three-quarters of a length under Joel Rosario in 1:22.59. Behind him toiled Fast Enough, who won the California Cup Derby in January, and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) winner and Eclipse Champion Two Year Old Storm the Court.
Nadal had only one work between starts, and just 21 days rest following the big career debut score. The last horse to win the San Vicente in just the second start of his career was Fly’n J. Bryan in 1994. Nadal has already shown he can sit between runners, race on the rail, and let other speed come to him and put them away. He will go two turns for the first time next out, which shouldn’t be a problem for the colt by Blame (Breeders’ Cup Classic), and is out of a mare that never won but did her best running around a mile or more.
Nadal is reminiscent of Dortmund in that he dwarfs his rivals, and could just be warming up sprinting. If he can learn to relax off the pace and strike, he will be a devastating foe indeed.
And for Baffert, who also trains the likes of Kentucky Derby candidates Authentic and Thousand Words, to peg this horse as the “scary” horse in his barn, the hype must be real.