04/06/2016 2:46PM

Derby Watch: Baffert, Stevens know how to get it done in Santa Anita Derby

Emily Shields
Mor Spirit will try to give jockey Gary Stevens his 10th win in the Santa Anita Derby and trainer Bob Baffert his eighth.

ARCADIA, Calif. – The first time Gary Stevens won the Santa Anita Derby, back in 1988 on the filly Winning Colors, Bob Baffert was in his apartment in Belmont Shore, Calif., watching the race on television, awaiting that night’s Quarter Horse racing at Los Alamitos.

“I remember seeing her win the Santa Anita Derby and thinking, ‘Wow,’ ” Baffert said.

“No one was going to beat her that day,” Stevens said.

In the 28 years since then, when it comes to the Santa Anita Derby, it’s been hard to beat Stevens or Baffert.

Stevens owns nine wins in the race, more than any other jockey. He got those wins in a 16-year span from 1988 to 2003, the first act of a career that brought him to the Hall of Fame.

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Baffert owns seven wins in the race, more than any other trainer. He amassed those wins in 20 years – beginning in 1996 with Cavonnier and including last year with Dortmund – after he made the move from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds and, like Stevens, made it to the Hall of Fame.

In concert, Baffert and Stevens have won the Santa Anita Derby three times, all in a four-year period from 1998-2001, before Stevens retired, then came back to fashion a glorious second act to his career.

On Saturday, they will try to add to all those totals with the highly regarded Mor Spirit in the 79th running of the West’s biggest race for 3-year-olds.

Stevens has been aboard Mor Spirit for five of his six starts, including wins in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes. Last time out, they were a troubled second in the San Felipe Stakes behind Danzing Candy, who is also in the Santa Anita Derby.

“His race was pretty impressive the other day,” Baffert said. “Gary got to know him a bit better. He ran on for second because he’s got a lot of class.”

Baffert is 63, Stevens 53. They have similar backgrounds in that both come from close families in the rural West, and they grew up in the sport, being sons of fathers who trained. And both first started in the sport as jockeys.

“Gary’s a horseman,” Baffert said. “He still rides a smart race. He’s good out of the gate. His style fits my horses.

“He figures out a horse’s style quickly. He’s a student of the game. He always has his horses in the right spot. And he knows if something went wrong, he can tweak it himself. I don’t have to tell him. He can ride a horse one time and say, ‘He doesn’t want to run that way.’ ”

:: PEDIGREE PROFILE: Danzing Candy

There was no better example of that, sadly for Baffert and Stevens, than in the 2001 Kentucky Derby, where they chose to sit closer to the pace than usual with Point Given. He flattened out and finished fifth that day. With more patient handling in subsequent races, he never lost again, including victories in the Preakness and Belmont. Baffert believes Point Given could have been a Triple Crown winner.

And it was Stevens who denied Baffert a Triple Crown in 1998 when Victory Gallop won the Belmont, nosing out Real Quiet. Stevens had ridden Victory Gallop for the first time in the Preakness.

“I remember right after the Preakness hearing him tell Elliott Walden,” Baffert said, referring to the trainer of Victory Gallop, “that he had ridden the horse wrong.”

Stevens hasn’t won the Santa Anita Derby since 2003, but he’s had few chances, owing to a seven-year retirement that ended in 2013. He finished sixth on Storm Fighter in 2013, third on Candy Boy in 2014, and did not have a mount last year. Mor Spirit is by far his best chance since returning.

:: ROAD TO THE KENTUCKY DERBY: Prep races, point standings, replays

He has had a remarkable comeback. In 2013, just months after returning, he won the Preakness on Oxbow, and that fall, he swept the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Mucho Macho Man and the Distaff with Beholder.

“I’m having a blast,” Stevens said. “I didn’t expect 2013 to go so well. I was hoping I’d get to ride in big races, but the way things took off helped.”

Stevens continues to pick his spots, seeking prime mounts in the better races while having a light schedule during the week. He nearly scored what would have been his most prestigious win since his comeback in last year’s Kentucky Derby when second on Firing Line.

After watching Mor Spirit’s work on Monday morning, Stevens said he was appreciative of the opportunities he’s still getting.

“I’m not going to be around forever,” Stevens said. “I’ve got to enjoy it.

“Who would have thought I’d still have Beholder around at 6? I’ve got her, Kobe’s Back, Taris, Mor Spirit. It’s a pretty good spot to be in.”

If Mor Spirit does well Saturday and moves on to the Kentucky Derby on May 7, he will give Stevens a chance for his fourth win in the race.

As with the Santa Anita Derby, the first was Winning Colors.

JeAnna Ramirez More than 1 year ago
Here is Gary's take on Point Given's derby. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6eUDQlOlvY0&nohtml5=False
Richard Holmes More than 1 year ago
He was definitely closer to the pace than he should have been, but it didn't cost him the race. He got beat by 12 lengths. He was sitting about 8 lengths off a really fast pace. He probably should have been sitting about 12-13 lengths back. But he still would not have won. Being a few lengths closer to a hot pace than you should be, can cost you a few lengths. But it's not going to cost you 12 lengths. In addition, as other have said, Congaree was much closer to the pace than Point Given, and Congaree blew Point Given off the track. If someone wants to make an argument that there was a horse in that race that could have beaten Monarchos with a better ride, that horse would be Congaree, not Point Given. But when a horse wins by 5 lengths like Monarchos did, it's kind of tough to say that anyone should have beaten him. But if you want to make an argument for the horse that might have been competitive with Monarchos with a better ride, that horse would be Congaree, not Point Given.
Neil More than 1 year ago
It's incredible Stevens wasn't jailed after his retirement, when he flat out stated that he rode for years with a busted knee that prevented him from giving his best in each race.   Isn't that what stewards are for? To ensure that riders are able to and giving their best to win a race.  This guy cheated the betting public (and his trainers and owners, by the way) for years, and yet they embraced him like a hero upon his "un-retirement".   Great write up on him though, Jay. 
Richard Holmes More than 1 year ago
Michael Jordan played hurt sometimes. Kobe plays hurt all the time. Clayton Kershaw pitched when he was sore. Do you think all those guys should have been jailed? That is one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard. Athletes play hurt all the time. Many athletes were finally forced to retire because of nagging injuries. I've bet on teams where one or more of the players was playing hurt. It's not always announced when a guy is playing with an injury. Athletes are famous for keeping their injuries quiet. With Stevens, his bad knees were no secret. He had several knee surgeries. Nobody thought his knees were perfect. 
Leslie Burke Fernandes More than 1 year ago
Carl Yastrzemski played hurt too maybe they should jail him.... idiot
john g More than 1 year ago
Gary's and Baffert's records speak for themselves, the proof is in the pudding.
Some people would be mad if you hung them with a new rope.
Good luck in the SA Derby Gary, Bob and Mor Spirit.
Larry Lachanski More than 1 year ago
Gary Stevens cost Point Given a Triple Crown.  What  "great"  jockey presses a 109.1 six furlong pace in a mile and a quarter race?
AJ More than 1 year ago
The track was pavement that day, but PG would have had to run a Derby record to beat Monarchos.
Blaine MacMillan More than 1 year ago
If you really watched the race, you'd see that his stablemate Congaree was even closer to the brutal early fractions and held on for 3rd, losing second by a nose in the last jump to Invisible Ink. Monarchos wasn't losing that day and Point Given wasn't beating Congaree. Baffert and Stevens knew that Congaree was primed going into the race. 
Eddie Lazaro More than 1 year ago
if you look at all the races of PG after the derby, he's a lot closer on most of them. I still believed that PG was not up and ready and needed another race before the derby. Gary has won on a lot of long shots than any other star jockey out there and I believe he's a great horseman. Mor Spirit came in second despite being checked twice and was not all spent after the race. Mor Spirit to win Saturday by 4 lengths, with Danzig Candy 2nd.
Richard Holmes More than 1 year ago
That is absurd. Stevens did not cost Point Given the race. Point Given was sitting about 8 lengths off the blistering pace. Congaree was sitting just a lengths or two off that pace. Congaree ended up being Point Given by about 7-8 lenghts. Point Given finished nowhere. He lost by 12 lengths. You can't blame the pace when horses who were much  closer to the pace ran so well and blew Point Given off the track. Stevens is one of the greatest, if not the greatest jockeys ever. When he was healthy, I think he was the greatest ever. By the way, Stevens has won the Ky Derby 3 times.
Leslie Burke Fernandes More than 1 year ago
I'd like to see you do better