04/27/2010 12:00AM

Baffert's in the Derby hunt once again

Barbara D. Livingston
Trainers Bob Baffert (left) and D. Wayne Lukas have collectively won the Kentucky Derby seven times.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - The first time trainer Bob Baffert ran a horse in the Kentucky Derby, in 1996, Cavonnier lost by a nose, leaving Baffert in what he will readily admit was a year-long funk.

"That was the most brutal beat of my career," he recalled Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs.

At the time Baffert had been regularly training Thoroughbreds for less than a decade. And while he had already won a Breeders' Cup race with Thirty Slews, the Triple Crown stage was foreign to him.

"I was devastated," he said. "I didn't know if I could get back."

He need not have fretted. Over the next six years, Baffert became a Derby regular. He won the race three times, tying him for fourth all-time with fellow Hall of Famers "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons and Max Hirsch. In each instance, Baffert took the Derby winner - Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem - to the verge of a Triple Crown by adding the Preakness, too.

In an era of Derby fields usually numbering 20 horses or thereabouts, Baffert has fashioned one of the most impressive records of any trainer in Derby history. Of his 18 starters, he also has finished second twice, including last year with Pioneerof the Nile, and third twice. He comes loaded. And this year, circumstances both within and outside his control have combined to make Baffert, yet again, one of the focal points of the Derby.

Baffert will send out Lookin At Lucky and Conveyance on Saturday in Derby 136. Both have earned their way on merit. Lookin At Lucky was last year's champion 2-year-old male - when he won the Norfolk Stakes, Del Mar Futurity, and CashCall Futurity - and this year owns a win in the Rebel Stakes, and a troubled third in the Santa Anita Derby. Conveyance won the first four starts of his career before finishing second last time out in the Sunland Derby.

The stock of both rose significantly when Eskendereya, the acknowledged favorite, was withdrawn over the weekend, leaving Lookin At Lucky as the new favorite. Now, Baffert stands to benefit by Eskendereya's misfortune. Last year, Baffert teamed with owner Ahmed Zayat with Pioneerof the Nile. Zayat also owns Eskendereya, who is trained by Todd Pletcher.

Should either Conveyance or Lookin At Lucky win this year, Baffert will vault into a tie for second all-time among trainers for Derby wins. Also owning four Derby wins are D. Wayne Lukas - who has Dublin in this Derby - and "Derby Dick" Thompson, who won four times between 1921 and 1933. Ben Jones leads all Derby trainers with six wins, earned between 1938 and 1952.

"I don't care who wins. I just want to win," Baffert said.

Conveyance had his final drill for the Derby on Tuesday morning, when he traveled five furlongs in 59.58 seconds, according to Daily Racing Form. He was one of just two Derby horses to work, the other being Awesome Act, who went a half-mile in 48.44 seconds under his Derby jockey, Julien Leparoux.

The works were conducted on a chilly morning in a steady rain on a track rated muddy. It rained at Churchill Downs for the fifth straight day, and while a break in the weather was forecast for midweek, according to Weather.com, the temperatures and humidity were expected to rise by the weekend. The Derby Day forecast is for a high of 80 degrees, with a 40 percent chance of rain, including scattered thunderstorms.

Conveyance fairly skipped over the surface on Tuesday with exercise rider Dana Barnes aboard.

"Conveyance is a speed horse," Baffert said. "He should be on the lead. It's always exciting when you've got horses who you think have got a chance. He went well. Now all we have to do is sit back and enjoy all the festivities."

Conveyance began his career in Southern California on synthetic surfaces, but has made his last two starts on dirt. He won the Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn before the Sunland Derby.

"He's so much better on dirt," Baffert said. "He reminds me a lot of Holy Bull" - Conveyance's maternal grandsire. "He wants to get out there and run. He's got a lot of natural speed."

Conveyance was originally purchased for $240,000 by the Thoroughbred Legends partnership at the Keeneland yearling sale in September 2008, but then was privately purchased after his first two wins by bloodstock agent Omar Trevino on behalf of Sheikh Rashid al-Maktoum's Zabeel Racing International.

Lookin At Lucky was bought by Baffert on behalf of owners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman for $475,000 one year ago this month at a 2-year-old in training sale at Keeneland.

"He worked well before the sale," Baffert said. "Did it effortlessly, the way he hit the ground, the way he moved over it. When I went to look at him, I could tell he was a little immature.

"When he was in the back of the ring, he got all pumped up. He looked really good. He had a presence about him. I thought he'd go for between $250,000 and $500,000."

What if the bidding had kept going past that budget?

"He wouldn't have stopped," Pegram said. "We needed him to help pay for the bad ones."

Baffert joked that "we've had a few gutterballs." But he has thrown plenty of strikes. Pegram owned Real Quiet - who in 1998 gave Baffert his second Derby win - and Pegram, Watson, and Weitman owned Midnight Lute, who twice won the Breeders' Cup Sprint.