Saratoga Springs

After long layoff, Life Is Good set for Saturday’s Allen Jerkens

Life Is Good pokes his head out of his stall at Todd Pletcher's Saratoga Race Course barn on Sunday morning.
PHOTOGRAPHER:

Life Is Good pokes his head out of his stall at Todd Pletcher's Saratoga Race Course barn on Sunday morning.

His trainer uses the word “effortlessly” to describe how Life Is Good goes about his business.

So life is good for the undefeated colt and those who are handling him at Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn 62 on the Oklahoma Training Track at Saratoga Race Course.

Sunday morning, as Saturday’s Alabama winner Malathaat, the best 3-year-old filly in the country, nibbled at her breakfast hay rack, Life Is Good was one stall over being easily coaxed with a handful of freshly plucked clover by assistant trainer Ginny DePasquale into poking his head out for a photo.

Meanwhile, Life Is Good’s path to Saturday’s Grade I Allen Jerkens, one of the top features on the Travers Day card, has been anything but effortless.

It includes not only injury that knocked Life Is Good off a Triple Crown trail that he promised to be a lead player in, but also a transfer from Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert’s barn on the West Coast to Pletcher’s on the East in the wake of Baffert’s Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit testing positive for a regulated drug.

The Derby result continues to be on hold while the powers that be sort through the Medina Spirit mess, but Life Is Good’s much-anticipated return to racing finally won’t be on hold any longer, as of Saturday.

He was sent by owner WinStar Farm to Pletcher in late June, and Life Is Good has been working steadily on the Oklahoma through a series of breezes for the last five weekends, most recently five furlongs in 1:00.61 last Saturday, on the morning of Malathaat’s Alabama win.

“Another very impressive breeze with a tremendous gallop-out,” Pletcher said. “He seems to do things effortlessly. He’s impressive to watch and it should have him ready to go in what is a demanding task going seven-eighths in a Grade I off a layoff. He seems to be training extremely well.

“I would argue that today was his best work of all, particularly the gallop-out. I had him out the mile in 1:39 and one [fifth of a second] under a motionless rider. He has a good foundation of fitness.”

Besides the long layoff — Life Is Good hasn’t raced since March 6 — the son of Into Mischief will be facing Amsterdam winner Jackie’s Warrior, the top 3-year-old sprinter in the country.

Life Is Good put himself squarely in the Triple Crown hunt as Baffert’s No. 1 3-year-old colt by breaking his maiden by 9 1/2 lengths at Del Mar last November, then winning the Grade III Sham at Santa Anita on Jan. 2 and the Grade II San Felipe on March 6.

In both stakes, Life Is Good beat stablemate Medina Spirit, and in the San Felipe it was by a whopping eight lengths.

Baffert, who won Triple Crowns with American Pharoah in 2015 and with Justify in 2018, had his top Derby contender for 2021, with end-of-year championship potential.

Then he didn’t.

Life Is Good was ruled out of the entire Triple Crown series shortly after the San Felipe with a hind leg injury that required surgery to remove a chip in his ankle.

Baffert won the Derby, anyway, with the horse who was considered his third-stringer.

Then he didn’t.

When Medina Spirit tested positive for betamethasone, a legal corticosteroid that nevertheless is not permitted in a horse’s system on race day, and also tested positive on a second blood sample, not only was the Derby result put in limbo, but Churchill Downs announced that it was banning Baffert for two years.

Shortly after Medina Spirit lost the Preakness, the New York Racing Association followed suit, banning Baffert indefinitely from stabling horses and racing at Belmont Park, Saratoga and Aqueduct.

Baffert’s lawyers appealed in court, and he currently is allowed to run horses in New York, and has done so a few times at Saratoga. His champion female sprinter Gamine is expected to run in the Grade I Ballerina on Travers Day.

The penalties in May put some of his owners, including WinStar, in a tough spot, especially as the Saratoga meet loomed, and some of them sent their horses to other trainers.

“The plan is to ship [Life Is Good] to Todd Pletcher in the coming weeks with a possibility of running in New York later this year,” WinStar president and CEO Elliott Walden told the Thoroughbred Daily News on June 24. “With the ban on Bob in Kentucky and New York right now, our opportunities are limited. We will continue to evaluate the situation with Bob and appreciate everything he has done with Life is Good.”

So through no issues associated with Life Is Good, the colt serves as a secondary symbol of the ongoing Baffert drug saga.

None of that is Pletcher’s concern.

He has another very good horse in his barn for which everyone has high expectations and aspirations, and the seven-furlong Allen Jerkens is supposed to serve as a first step toward those. After he gets through this race, Pletcher will look for spots at longer distances.

“Yeah, I would think so,” he said. “I don’t know exactly where yet. We’re just focused on getting this one back. It’s a tall order running against some horses that have some recency, and seven-eighths is a demanding distance any time you come back, especially in a Grade I.”

Off for almost six months and late to the table among the 3-year-old males, Life Is Good is ready to start gobbling up some races again.

On Sunday, Malathaat’s Alabama blanket of red-and-white carnations was hanging over the shedrow railing in front of their stalls, and when DePasquale was asked whether Life Is Good had tried to eat the flowers, she grinned and said, “He was looking at them. Like they might be something edible.”

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