Bob Baffert knows how to win the Kentucky Derby. He’s won it three times, missed by an excruciating nose in another and never tires of trying to win it again.
It’s the race of every trainer’s dreams. Baffert won his first in 1997 with 4-1 shot Silver Charm, came back the next year with unsung 8-1 shot Real Quiet and capped his run in 2002 when last-minute purchase War Emblem led throughout under Victor Espinoza to win by four lengths at 20-1.
Baffert’s been firing blanks ever since, finishing 14th with Indian Express in 2003, 17th with Sort It Out in 2005, and ninth, 16th and 17th, respectively, with Point Determined, Sinister Minister and Bob and John in 2006. He was a distant second to 50-1 winner Mine That Bird with Pioneerof the Nile last year and didn’t have a starter in 2004 and 2007.
Things could be different in 2010. Baffert’s been keen on many of his Derby prospects, 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given and 2002 male two-year-old champion Vindication among them, but he’s never been as high as he is on Lookin At Lucky. Baffert can barely curb his enthusiasm. His optimism is something beyond euphoria.
Can’t blame him so far. It’s hard to fault perfection, and that’s what Lookin At Lucky is. After four races, he’s unbeaten, and lived up to expectations as the 4-5 favorite when he won the Grade I Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita by nearly two lengths on Oct. 3. At a mile and a sixteenth, it was ‘Lucky’s’ first race around two turns and an ideal prep for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at the same distance on Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride surface Nov. 7.
I asked Baffert after the Norfolk if this was the best 2-year-old he’s ever had. Not wanting to offend clients past and present, and walking the line of politically correctness, Baffert joshingly said it was the best 2-year-old he’s had in the last five years, adding, "I can’t remember more than five years."
At 56, Baffert probably is not a candidate for early dementia, although some cells likely are seeking greener pastures. So when he heaps praise on Lookin At Lucky, listeners are advised to take heed.
"I’m a big fan of his now, watching him run," Baffert said of the bay colt by Smart Strike owned by Arizona residents Mike Pegram, Karl Watson and Paul Weitman. "He’s got power steering. He’s not one-dimensional, which is great, because you don’t have to worry about what post position he draws, track condition or speed. He’s just a very good horse, and you’re seeing him unfold, like I am."
Lookin At Lucky was never a great secret. He cost $475,000 when purchased at the Keeneland sales, and was the 7-10 favorite in his first race, a three-quarter length victory at six furlongs at Del Mar on July 11. Next came a victory by the same margin in the Grade II Best Pal Stakes at 6½ furlongs on Aug. 9, followed by a one-length victory in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity at seven furlongs on Sept. 7.
Then came the Norfolk, and next is the Breeders’ Cup. Garrett Gomez, who has ridden Lookin At Lucky in all of his races, has every confidence the handsome colt can give him his first Kentucky Derby victory come May 1, 2010.
"Lookin At Lucky is a very mature 2-year-old that takes everything in stride," Gomez said. "The Norfolk was his first time going long and he handled it perfectly. He made the lead turning for home and when he did, he threw his ears up and kind of waited on the horse inside of him. When I got after him though, he went on with it and finished up real game. How good is he? Well, he’s four for four and I guess he’ll tell us how good he is."
Even vanquished Mike Smith, who finished second in the Norfolk on 18-1 shot Pulsion, amped up the volume in praise of Lookin At Lucky. "Forget about the winner being the best 2-year-old on the West Coast," the Hall of Fame rider said. "I think the best 2-year-old in the country won the race."
No one has to convince Baffert. He’s sold on Lookin At Lucky. "This horse is different from any other I’ve had," he said. "A lot different. It’s pretty exciting."
Question? Comment? E-mail me at: Ed Golden