Updated on 09/17/2011 10:19AM

Getting to Louisville via Panama

In his first work at Churchill Downs, Indian Express goes five furlongs Friday in 1:01.40 under Dana Barnes.

Bob Baffert won the Kentucky Derby last year with an overlooked front-runner whom he acquired after the colt began his career elsewhere. Might Indian Express, this year's model, have an aim as true as War Emblem?

Indian Express was 35-1 in the Santa Anita Derby, but he nearly pulled off the upset. After dueling with Ocean Terrace through torrid fractions, he put away all rivals except Buddy Gil, who beat Indian Express by a head. That effort convinced Baffert that Indian Express deserves a shot at the Derby.

Friday, Indian Express got his first serious feel of the Churchill Downs main track. He worked five furlongs in 1:01.40 on a track labeled "good," with exercise rider Dana Barnes aboard.

"He went by himself, nice and easy," said Baffert, who arrived in Louisville on Thursday night. "He was looking around. He definitely needs company to work faster."

That was not the intention on Friday; the drill was just to keep Indian Express on a regular training pattern. More serious work will be done over the next two weeks.

Indian Express has made a circuitous route to the Derby. He was bred in Utah, then was sold as a yearling at Fasig-Tipton for $4,500 and sent to Panama. He won both his starts there, by a combined 21 1/2 lengths. A friend of jockey Laffit Pincay Jr., who is a native of Panama, sent a tape of the colt to Pincay, asking him to see if any trainers in the United States were interested in purchasing Indian Express.

Pincay first took the tape to trainer Bill Spawr, who has been Pincay's main source of employment for the past decade.

"He looked awesome," Spawr said Friday from Santa Anita, where he is based. "But you had no idea who was behind him."

Spawr asked one of his owners if he was interested. They made what Spawr called "a lowball offer" to the Panamanian interests. It was rejected.

Pincay then took the tape to Baffert.

"His races looked great in Panama, but he was beating a bunch of goats," Baffert said.

Baffert was interested, though, in part because Indian Express is a son of Indian Charlie, whom Baffert trained. In 1998, Indian Charlie won the Santa Anita Derby and finished third in the Kentucky Derby.

"He's lankier than Indian Charlie," Baffert said of Indian Express. "Indian Charlie was magnificent, picture-perfect."

Baffert decided to purchase Indian Express, then looked for an owner to buy him.

Phil Chess, an 82-year-old former record producer who lives in Tucson, Ariz., had been asking Baffert to claim a horse for him for approximately $50,000. Baffert told Chess he was not interested in claiming a horse, but that he had recently acquired a colt whose price was, according to Baffert, "$150,000, with shipping and everything." Chess went for it.

Indian Express has made just two starts for Baffert. He finished fourth in the San Pedro Stakes, a sprint, before stretching out in the Santa Anita Derby. Pincay was supposed to ride him, but he was seriously injured before Indian Express ran in this country.

Indian Express "was working okay, not tearing them up, but he has started to come around in the last 30 days," Baffert said. "He surprised us a lot in the Santa Anita Derby when he turned for home and kept on running. The talent's there. He's still learning. He's got a set of lungs on him."

In other Derby developments Friday:

* Ten Most Wanted, who had been training at Keeneland since his victory on April 5 in the Illinois Derby, was sent by van to Churchill Downs.

* Robby Albarado has picked up the mount on Offlee Wild, who finished third last weekend in the Blue Grass Stakes at Keeneland. Pat Day rode Offlee Wild that day, but he has chosen to ride Ten Most Wanted in the Derby.

- additional reporting by Marty McGee