04/06/2016 1:46PM

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

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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.’ ”

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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.

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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.