Golden Edge by Ed Golden | Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times, but he’ll be on the outside looking in this year. He’ll be a stay-at-home trainer. Not that he won’t be straining with prurient interest.
Baffert, who won the Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm; in 1998 with Real Quiet and in 2002 with 11th-hour purchase War Emblem, doesn’t have a 3-year-old of Derby timber this year. The 54-year-old trainer certainly knows his way around the Triple Crown trail, however. Each of the aforementioned horses won the first two legs in their seasons (the Derby and Preakness) but missed in the Belmont Stakes.
Baffert would have four Derby winners and three in a row had Cavonnier not been nailed by a nose in the last jump by Grindstone in 1996.
Point Given, favored to win the Derby in 2001, finished fifth, then captured the Preakness and the Belmont en route to being named Horse of the Year. In all, Baffert has eight Triple Crown victories, but realist that he is, would need a miracle not only to win one this year, or even to have a starter.
That said, Baffert can be nothing if not objective in his evaluation of the Triple Crown contenders. Some are likely to fall through the cracks before the 134th Derby is run at a mile and a quarter at Churchill Downs on May 3. Until they show an affinity for a mile and an eighth, Baffert’s philosophy tends to dismiss them.
"They start separating themselves when they go a mile and an eighth," he said. "At a mile, a mile and a sixteenth, a horse can stay in there and fight, but you get a better idea as to what they can do at the Derby distance if they prove themselves at a mile and an eighth. You can tell whether they’re going forward or tailing off.
"And each week that passes, a bubble seems to burst, like it did with War Pass (the early Future Book Derby favorite, who suffered his first defeat and finished last as the 1-20 choice in the Tampa Bay Derby)."
Baffert also holds a theory about horses running on synthetic surfaces before performing in an over-sized field on the traditional dirt course at Churchill Downs.
"After they’ve been running on synthetic surfaces, running on dirt and in a 20-horse field at Churchill Downs makes a difference," Baffert said. "Prep races in California haven’t had big fields, so horses out here aren’t battle-tested. Some horses really move up on synthetic surfaces, so you don’t know if they’re going to transfer that form to dirt."
Saturday’s Santa Anita Derby could provide some answers, with heavyweights Colonel John, El Gato Malo and Georgie Boy likely to dominate the mile and an eighth race. Baffert fancies two of the three.
"I think Colonel John and Georgie Boy are the two best 3-year-olds in California," he said. But his first choice nationally is no surprise.
"Pyro’s the real deal," Baffert said. "He’s such a professional horse. He really impressed me winning the Louisiana Derby, because he was able to sit right behind the speed with his tactical style. He can sit there and he can take the dirt, he can be in tight and just wait and wait and wait. And I like the way that kid (jockey Shaun Bridgmohan) rides him. He rides him with a lot of confidence. When you ask this horse to go, he just takes off. A mile and a quarter shouldn’t be a problem for him as long as he’s got that kind of a mind.
"There are other good 3-year-olds, like Big Brown. He’s a very freakish-type of horse with raw talent. His win in the Florida Derby was awesome."
Big Brown, undefeated and untested in three races, winning by a combined 28 lengths, became the first horse to win breaking from the No. 12 post going 11/8 miles since Gulfstream Park’s main track was reconfigured about four years ago.
But if he had his druthers, instead of watching from afar, who would Baffert want to put a saddle on in this year’s Derby?
"If I got a call from Sheikh Mohammed," Baffert said, "and he told me to go buy a horse, it would be Pyro."
Now there are three schools of thought on possible changes to Santa Anita’s main track: it will be replaced with a synthetic Tapeta surface; it will be replaced with traditional dirt; or the existing mix of Cushion and Pro-Ride will be tweaked moderately, then left as is … With all due respect to the Las Vegas Hilton’s Kentucky Derby Future Book, don’t take 60-1 or even 600-1 on J Be K; he’s not running in the Derby; don’t take 18-1 or even 118-1 on Indian Blessing; she’s not running; and don’t take 18-1 or even 1,800-1 on Into Mischief; he’s recovering from foot problems and won’t make the race … The following fines were recently levied by the California Horse Racing Board to Santa Anita backstretch personnel: "$25 for jumping a fence; $25 for tampering with a smoke detector; $50 for unauthorized food vending; $50 for disorderly conduct – intoxication; $50 for disobedience to security – refused to show license; and $50 for illegal hot plate – second offense. I kid you not … Standing headline in LA newspaper sports sections: "Clippers Lose (fill in the number) in a Row."