Two weeks ago, Bob Baffert made what appeared to be a head-scratching decision, keeping star 3-year-olds Medina Spirit and Private Mission home in California. That, instead of running the pair against their age group rivals in Parx Racing’s two marquee races, the Pennsylvania Derby and the Cotillion.

Private Mission-Zenyatta
Bob Baffert’s star 3-year-old filly Private Mission heads to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff after Sunday’s convincing victory in the Grade 2 Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita Park. (Image: Benoit Photo)

And yet again, Baffert’s decision leaves little doubt he knows where the right buttons are. Especially at Santa Anita Park, where the Hall of Fame trainer pushed them yet again during Santa Anita’s Autumn Meet opening weekend.

On Saturday, Medina Spirit destroyed his elders by five lengths in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes. One day later, Private Mission won a solid 2 ¼-length victory in the Grade 2 Zenyatta Stakes. In so doing, both earned “Win and You’re In” berths to their respective Breeders’ Cup events.

For Medina Spirit, that’s the flagship $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. For Private Mission, it’s the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Throw in Corniche’s 3 ¼-length score in Friday’s Grade 1 American Pharoah and Baffert swept Santa Anita’s three Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series events over the weekend. Corniche punched his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Medina Spirit refuses to lose

The fact Medina Spirit could be stripped of his Kentucky Derby title for that betamethasone positive takes nothing away from the way he dismissed his older rivals in the Awesome Again. Baffert decided the Protonico offspring’s number 9 post wasn’t conducive to his front-running style, so he scratched him from the Pennsylvania Derby, where he was the 2/1 favorite.

Instead, Baffert turned him loose against older horses for the first time, including battle-tested Express Train and Pacific Classic champion Tripoli. It didn’t matter one iota to Medina Spirit, who went off as the 6/5 favorite in the Awesome Again and backed it up impressively. For that matter, so did the other 3-year-old in the field, 54/1 long shot Stilleto Boy, who beat Express Train for third. That completed an all-3-year-old, $83.30 payout on the $1 exacta.

“We stayed focused on the horses,” Baffert told Santa Anita after the race, dismissing any controversy. “The fans came out to see this horse and they are rooting for him. I could tell by the crowd noise. They are all pulling for him. It’s an emotional win for us. (Jockey) Johnny V(elazquez) can do whatever with the horse. He can wait, stalk, whatever. This horse keeps getting better and better.”

One of the Thoroughbred bargains of the century

Medina Spirit heads into the Breeders’ Cup Classic against Knicks Go, Essential Quality, Pennsylvania Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie, and Tripoli, among others, with a 5-3-1 record in nine races. That victory put the $30,000 purchase at $2,525,200 in career earnings.

And Private Mission, Medina Spirit’s would-be travel partner, bumped her record to four wins in five races with her pressing victory in the 1 1/16-mile Zenyatta. A $750,000 purchase at the 2019 Fasig-Tipton Saratoga Yearling Sale, Private Mission seized the lead at the three-eighths pole and widened it on the turn.

As the even-money favorite, the daughter of Into Mischief remained unbeaten in three Santa Anita outings. The Zenyatta was Private Mission’s third consecutive victory.

Baffert has no travel regrets

“Private Mission, I’m glad I stayed home with her,” Baffert said after Sunday’s Zenyatta. “I decided this would be best for her with the Breeders’ Cup in mind. We didn’t want to stress her. She’s on the improve, getting better and better. I’m really happy with the way both fillies ran.”

That second filly was As Time Goes By, who finished second at 5/2 in an all-Baffert exacta. As you would expect with Baffert horses in California, that $1 exacta paid a pittance at just $4.60.