At the eighth-pole, Bob Baffert knew he was going to win his record ninth Santa Anita Derby.
The only suspense was with which horse.
Roadster defeated Game Winner by a half-length in the $1 million race on Saturday, giving Baffert a 1-2 finish and the possibility of three horses in the Kentucky Derby.
His other standout, Improbable, is set to run in the Arkansas Derby next weekend.
All 11 races went off without incident at the historic track where 23 horses have died since Dec. 26. Sign-toting protesters gathered outside the gates urging the end of racing; inside, the crowd of 30,713 cheered as Roadster, Game Winner and Instagrand charged down the stretch.
"It was so comforting to see all these fans here and get behind us," Baffert said in the winner's circle. "They know at the end of the day we love our horses. We wake up worrying about them. We go to sleep worrying about them. To me, that's what made this a great day."
It was the smallest Derby attendance since 2016, when 27,821 came out on a rainy day.
Ridden by Mike Smith, Roadster ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.28. It was the slowest winning time since Sir William was clocked in 1:49.40 in 1957.
"This track is deep and slow, but it's safe, and that's what we wanted," Baffert said.
Roadster, a 3-year-old gray colt, needed to finish first or second to earn enough qualifying points for the 20-horse field for next month's Kentucky Derby. He received 100 points for the win and is fourth on the Derby leaderboard.
"I'm proud of him for coming from off the pace like that," said winning owner Peter Fluor of Speedway Stable LCC. "Mike said he's got gears and he showed it."
Roadster underwent throat surgery last summer. He won his first race back on March 1.
"His breathing is not an issue," Baffert said. "Today he passed the test to know he's good enough to go to the big show."
Roadster paid $8.20, $3 and $2.40 at 3-1 odds. Game Winner returned $2.40 and $2.10 as the 1-2 wagering favorite. The Baffert exacta was worth $7.
Game Winner picked up 40 points and is seventh on the Derby leaderboard with 85.
Instagrand paid $2.60 to show. He earned 20 points and is 27th on the leaderboard with 25.
Nolo Conesto was fourth, followed by Synthesis and More Ice.
Improbable is 27th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 25 points, but a win next Saturday in Arkansas would vault him into the field.
That would give Baffert a trio in the Derby for the third time. He also saddled three in 2006 and 1999, but didn't win either time.
Baffert's luck ran out in the $600,000 Santa Anita Handicap for older horses.
Gift Box nosed out McKinzie in a photo finish for the Grade 1 race.
In other Derby preps:
—Vekoma won the $1 million Blue Grass Stakes by 3½ lengths at Keeneland.
Ridden by Javier Castellano, Vekoma ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.93 and paid $4.80, $3.20 and $2.60 as the 7-5 favorite. The colt earned 100 qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby and is second overall on the leaderboard with 110.
Win Win Win returned $4 and $3.20. Signalman paid $3.60 to show.
Vekoma and Win Win Win are likely assured spots in the 20-horse Derby field. They would be just the second Derby starters for trainers George Weaver and Mike Trombetta, respectively.
A 4-year-old filly named Cathedral Reader was euthanized after sustaining a catastrophic injury in the Grade 1 Madison Stakes at the Kentucky track.
—Tacitus won the $750,000 Wood Memorial by 1¼ lengths at Aqueduct.
Ridden by Jose Ortiz, Tacitus ran 1 1/8 miles in 1:51.23. The 5-2 wagering favorite paid $7.20, $4.70 and $3.
Tacitus rallied from 10 lengths back to win the Tampa Bay Derby last month in his 3-year-old debut. He has won three of four career starts, including three in a row for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott. The colt is a son of 2004 Wood Memorial winner Tapit.
Tacitus earned 100 points for the victory and moved to the top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 150 overall.
Tax was second and Haikal took third.