LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Game Winner's latest triumph included bumps along the way.
The colt shook them off before shaking the field to remain perfect and make his case as the year's best 2-year-old.
Game Winner overcame an early bump to surge down the stretch, then pulled away from long shot Knicks Go after another nudge to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile by 2 1/4 lengths Friday at Churchill Downs. That gave trainer Bob Baffert an early Kentucky Derby favorite just five months after winning his second Triple Crown with Justify.
But not without some anxious moments for the Hall of Fame trainer and co-owners Gary and Mary West.
"This is a huge win for me," said Baffert, who second-guessed himself during Game Winner's rough start before his pupil recovered.
"Any other horse, he would've been done. That's how good a horse he is."
The race favorite was bumped after breaking from the No. 9 post and lagged in the middle of the 13-horse field before pushing forward on the outside and into contention at the top of the stretch. Game Winner and Knicks Go brushed before the horse broke away for the win to improve to 4-0 lifetime. Signalman was a length back in third.
"He likes Churchill Downs, and that's a good sign," Baffert told NBCSN. "These races are hard to win. I have a great crew and a great team and we got it done."
The thrilling finish in the $2 million, Grade 1 race capped a first day devoted to 2-year-olds at the season-ending world championships. Game Winner also emerged as one of the year's top Juveniles.
Ridden by Joel Rosario, Game Winner covered 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.67 and paid $4, $3.20 and $2.80. Knicks Go returned $21.40 and $11.20, and Signalman paid $15.80.
"He broke fine, but it looked like they took my spot and I had to go wide," said Rosario, who has eight Breeders' Cup titles after winning twice on Friday. He also rode Jaywalk to a wire-to-wire victory by 5 + lengths in the $2 million Juvenile Fillies.
"He seemed like he didn't mind that. ... Turning for home, the more I rode him the more he gave it to me."
Game Winner's victory provided some irony for Baffert, who didn't race Justify as a 2-year-old but struck gold last spring when the colt went on to become racing's 13th Triple Crown winner. An ankle issue forced Justify to retire unbeaten in July, leaving Saturday's marquee Breeders' Cup Classic without the sport's most notable horse.
Going forward, Game Winner's name is in the mix as the next possible star.
His third Grade 1 victory comes just over a month since winning the American Pharoah, named for the 2015 Triple Crown winner that Baffert also trained. This one required more work before 42,249 on a brisk, overcast day on a track that was fast after two days of heavy rain.
Baffert seeks his fourth Cup Classic win in five years Saturday with West Coast and McKinzie in the marquee of nine stakes races.
Other Breeders' Cup winners:
- Line of Duty survived a lengthy postrace review before stewards upheld his half-length victory over Uncle Benny in the $1 million Juvenile Turf. Line of Duty charged from outside down the stretch to pass Somelikeithotbrown and hold off Uncle Benny in a three-wide finish, giving the Irish colt his third consecutive win after two seconds.
- Newspaperofrecord rolled to another dominant victory, pulling away down the stretch for a 6 3/4-length win over East in the $1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf. The Irish bred improved to 3-0 lifetime, winning each time by at least six lengths.
- Bulletin opened the Breeders' Cup by pulling away to a 2 3/4-length victory over Chelsea Cloisters in the $1 million inaugural Juvenile Turf Sprint, earning a graded stakes win in just his second career start. It gave co-owners Winstar Farm and China Horse Farm another significant win six months after claiming the Derby with Justify.
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