05/05/2016 8:30AM

Baffert takes aim at fifth Kentucky Derby win with Mor Spirit

Barbara D. Livingston
Bob Baffert and Mor Spirit are heading into this year's Kentucky Derby 'a little under the radar.'

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – In the last few months, a quarterback went out on top after winning the Super Bowl, and a president bid farewell to media members with a mic drop.

Bob Baffert didn’t walk away after American Pharoah retired, didn’t say, “Baffert out,” following the Triple Crown. No, one year after training American Pharoah to the first Triple Crown sweep in 37 years, Baffert has taken up his familiar spot preceding the first Saturday in May, Barn 33 at Churchill Downs, where on Saturday, for the 17th time in his career, he will try to win the Kentucky Derby.

Baffert has a top contender this year in Mor Spirit, but it’s far from the hand he held a year ago, with both American Pharoah, the previous year’s champion 2-year-old male, and Dortmund, who was unbeaten. American Pharoah won, then went on to sweep the Triple Crown, add the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and be named both Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old male. It was quite the high.

“We’re still on the semi-Pharoah tour,” Baffert said outside Barn 33 this week. “It ends on Saturday.”

Baffert took a look back at the past year during a recent conversation. He said this year’s Derby has “a different vibe” but emphasized that he retained the passion to win a race he’s taken down four times in his prior 16 tries. Only Ben Jones, with six, has more Derby victories than Baffert.

“We’re going into this a little under the radar. We’re not the heavy favorite,” Baffert said. “It’s still fun to go there. It’s still exciting. It never gets old.

“The difference between last year and this is that last year, Pharoah had stamped himself after the Arkansas Derby. After the Arkansas Derby, no one was trying to buy a Derby horse. This year, everybody’s trying to get a piece of a horse.”

Baffert arrived in Kentucky a week prior to the Derby with his wife, Jill, and son, Bode, and made sure to find time to visit American Pharoah at Coolmore America’s Ashford Stud – a little more than an hour’s drive from Churchill Downs – where American Pharoah is spending his first year at stud. The Bafferts became quite emotionally attached to American Pharoah, whose personality was so inviting.

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“He’s so kind. He enjoys his interaction with people,” Baffert said. “Most horses like that don’t enjoy it, don’t want to be bothered.”

Baffert said he gets regular updates from Coolmore’s Aisling Duignan, the farm’s director of bloodstock, and said he enjoys seeing all the photos that get posted on social media from visitors to see American Pharoah.

“Aisling is always sending me notes telling me what’s going on, but it seems that everybody who goes there gets their picture taken with him and puts it on social media, so I get to see what he looks like pretty regularly,” Baffert said. “He’s over 1,300 pounds. His fighting weight when he was racing was about 1,190. He looks great.”

Baffert always remarked during American Pharoah’s racing career how intelligent the colt was and said that has carried over to his life on the farm.

“At the farm, there’s a pathway he goes down where if he turns left, he’s headed to the breeding shed, and he gets all worked up, but if he turns right, he’s headed to where the visitors are, and he knows to be quiet,” Baffert said. “He knows which one is business and which one is chill. He’s so intelligent, it’s crazy. That’s why I hope he throws all that in his offspring.

“I’ve never been around a horse with that kind of intelligence, that kind of demeanor. He knows when to turn it on. I’ve had really good horses before, but not one who did everything so effortlessly.”

Baffert said American Pharoah gave him such confidence that he didn’t even cheer in the Belmont or at the Breeders’ Cup.

“It was like, ‘Wow, look at this,’ ” Baffert said. “And with all the traveling, too. Nobody can fly a horse around that much. They can’t take it. For him to do all that shipping and still winning as much as he did. He sustained it all year long.”

Because of the high standards American Pharoah set, Baffert said he has had to check himself into thinking that other horses in his barn can handle similar demands.

“I have to be careful now,” he said. “I can’t expect them to do the same. They can’t take it.”

Mor Spirit already has shown that he can travel and run well. He finished second here at Churchill Downs last fall in the Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes.

“He’s going to run well,” Baffert said of Mor Spirit in the Derby. “He tries hard. He gives it to you every time. He’ll get the mile and a quarter.

“It’s a different vibe this year. My job is to give him a chance to run his race. But it’s not like I’m coming in thinking, ‘I’m gonna kick your’ ” butt.