QUALITY ROAD UPDATE: BAKER DEFENDS HIS STAR PUPIL

(Editor’s note: We’ve encountered some turbulence over our coverage of Quality Road’s scratch from Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. We continue to provide as much info as is available to us as quickly as possible. One item generally unreported in most stories about this event was the presence of a helicopter hovering near the starting gate (you can hear it on the video). Observers claim to have seen cotton balls in Zenyatta’s ears in anticipation of something of this nature. While it is not uncommon for helicopters to shoot overhead footage of big races, it should not have been close to the starting gate. We are pleased that Spring Hill manager Chris Baker has spoken out on his horses’ behalf, his comments from various media outlets are below. In addition, here is some follow up from the Blood Horse’s Steve Haskins.)

As pointed out yesterday, by a VA TB Blog reader, Quality Road refused to load onto the airplane for the return trip to New York from California.

According to various media sources and Spring Hill Farm manager Chris Baker, Quality Road had such a traumatic experience at the starting gates at Santa Anita on Saturday that he would not board the plane to fly back to his home base.

The Todd Pletcher-trained three-year-old will have to return by van from California, after a harrowing experience that appears to have left mental as well as physical scars.

“He’s got stitches, he nearly knocked a tooth out, he’s got a laceration and a big bruise over one eye, and a pretty significant haematoma on his left leg,” said Baker, Spring Hill Farm manager for owner Edward P. Evans.

“They appear to be passing things and soft-tissue types of injuries, but he still has to recover from them and also from the mental wounds.”

“They tried to get him on the plane to leave California on Monday and he wouldn’t load. He was freezing up like a horse that was going to flip over or something else. They said he was not right about it and they weren’t going to force him to get on, which was the right choice.”

“This is a smart horse and when he has that kind of experience it’s not something he’s going to forget. He’s really shook up.”

Baker believes the Santa Anita gate crew lost patience with Quality Road too quickly.

“Initially, the gate crew handled things very properly, patting him on the head and neck and reassuring him. He already was agitated and hesitant and they tried to do things in a calm way. Then they went right away to the harsh stuff. The one thing I felt good about is that his behavior didn’t cost anyone else a chance to run a fair race.”

“We’ve got some work ahead of us to get him right. We want to race him next year, and we hope this goes away. This is a smart horse, and when he has that kind of experience it’s not something he’s going to forget. He’s really shook up.”

“Most of my regret is the bad breaks he’s had,” Baker said. “He had quarter cracks and we got him over that, then we had sloppy tracks in the Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, and then we go have an experience like this. When he’s right and he’s on a fast track, you get nothing but pure brilliance and track records. I feel sorry for the horse for what he’s had to go through and for not being able to show how good he really is.”

“The trauma he received on Saturday was pretty hard to digest. All we can do now is sort things out and try to give him a chance to show the brilliance we know he has.”

Baker said he’s gotten a good deal of sympathy from everyone. “I’m at the sales in Kentucky and everyone is coming over and telling me how badly they feel for me,” he said. “It was a very difficult thing to watch. It was a problem the horse started and the gate crew finished, and unfortunately, the horse was put at great risk in the process. It could have been worse had he gotten loose with that blindfold on.”

“Todd did a lot of gate schooling with him, and he’s always good in the mornings. He’s had him to the gate three or four times between the Jockey Club Gold Cup and this race, and the horse is an angel in the morning, You can’t get him to do anything wrong. They tried to get him wound up, bringing in multiple horses and spinning him in circles, anything they can to aggravate him. He’d hesitate and then walk right in. The afternoon is a different story.”

One of Baker’s regrets is that people will get the wrong impression of the horse, based on what has been written.

“They say he’s crazy and a rogue, but he’s not like that at all,” Baker said. “I’ve known that horse since he was born, and he’s never been a rogue or difficult. He’s like a puppy dog in the barn. He just was upset on this day. You get in a fight with a finely tuned athlete ready to explode on the racetrack and make him angry, it’s not going to be a good situation.”

“He’s just so big at 17 hands, and he’s long, too, so that gate is a pretty small space for him. Not being able to see because of the blindfold is what really freaked him out the most.”

Quality Road is scheduled to board a van on Thursday, along with his groom, for a 36-hour trip to Churchill Downs, Kentucky, where he will stop over for 48 hours before continuing on to Belmont Park in New York.

Once at Belmont, starter Bob Duncan will work with him as soon as possible to try to get him over his gate problems. If they have to, they will make arrangements to school him in the afternoon to simulate race conditions and try find out the root of his problem.

“We’ve all got a lot of confidence in Bob Duncan and his ability to work with horses that have had difficulty in this way,” said Baker. “Hopefully, we can take a bad memory and replace it with a good one.”

“It’s definitely frustrating,” Baker said. “When you look at his race record when he’s right and he’s got a fast track, he’s nothing short of brilliant. . . . The horse has never had a chance to show everything he’s got. Hopefully, he will have a chance to do that.”

(Top gate photo by Mathea Kelley)