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Kentucky Derby: Baffert following familiar paths to Louisville
By Jay Privman
ARCADIA, Calif. – Bob Baffert must have the source code, because he keeps going in for more. It’s a month before the Kentucky Derby, and, like seemingly every spring, here he is with a couple of top contenders, this year’s models being Jaycito and The Factor. Yes, there are some familiar names among trainers on the Derby trail every year, but since his first appearance in 1996, Baffert has been the most consistent in terms of achievement.
Consider that Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times but also owns five wins in the Santa Anita Derby, a race in which he sends out two horses, Jaycito and Midnight Interlude, on Saturday. Next weekend, Baffert will take The Factor back to Oaklawn Park, scene of his victory in last month’s Rebel Stakes, for the Arkansas Derby. He’s been down this road so many times that even though he wants nothing more than another Derby victory, Baffert has the perspective to know just how elusive the quest is.
“You can’t woof until you put the saddle on them and take them over to the rail, and even then you’re not home,” Baffert said while watching his horses train earlier this week at Santa Anita. “Look at Lookin At Lucky. When he drew the one hole in the Derby, I lost all interest. I had just left Cracker Barrel earlier in the morning, and I wanted to throw up my chicken-fried steak and eggs.
“At this point, you just don’t want them to regress. You get them ready, plot their next race, and hope they don’t regress. But you better prepare for the worst, because you don’t know when you’re going to be back.”
Never has Baffert felt that more than his first time at the Derby, in 1996. Cavonnier, who had given Baffert his first victory in the Santa Anita Derby just weeks earlier, led in deep stretch at Churchill Downs and lost a brutal photo finish to Grindstone. Not knowing what would unfold in future years, Baffert was in a funk for months and didn’t really snap out of it until Silver Charm won the 1997 Derby.
Baffert followed up with Kentucky Derby victories by Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. He has not won since, but in recent years has had good chances. Pioneerof the Nile, who gave Baffert his fifth win in the Santa Anita Derby in 2009, finished second in Kentucky to longshot Mine That Bird. Lookin At Lucky got mugged the first quarter-mile of last year’s Derby, rallied to finish sixth, then won the Preakness, and went on to be named champion 3-year-old male.
His two top prospects this year are complete contrasts.
Jaycito is a late-running, light-framed horse who came to Baffert’s barn after making his first four starts for trainer Mike Mitchell. Last year, Mitchell used blinkers in all of Jaycito’s races, including a victory in the Norfolk Stakes and a wild run in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in which Jaycito bolted on the first turn. Baffert removed the blinkers for Jaycito’s first start of the year in the San Felipe, but they are back on for the Santa Anita Derby.
The Factor, who has been with Baffert since the start of his career, was highly touted from the beginning. After a disappointing debut as the odds-on favorite, he has won three straight races, utilizing his keen speed to run his rivals off their feet. Though Baffert has been circumspect about The Factor getting to the Kentucky Derby, he has been more emboldened of late.
“He’s been doing really, really well,” Baffert said. “He got a lot out of that last race in Arkansas. He’s fitter now. Once we sent him long, he realized he better slow down. It’s a long way around there. He’s got to do it in the Arkansas Derby. If he runs well there, we’ll look at the Derby. If not, we’ll pass. We’ll let him tell us if he’s ready for the next step. I thought he ran hard, and he ran fast last time. I loved the way he re-broke.”
This year’s Santa Anita Derby comes in the midst of a terrific meet for Baffert. Barring the unforeseen, he will win a record ninth training title at Santa Anita’s winter meeting. His biggest stakes win came in the Santa Anita Handicap, in which Game On Dude survived a rough stretch run and a lengthy inquiry.
“Other than Always a Princess, I’ve had a good meet,” Baffert said, referring to the filly who suffered a career-ending fracture in the Santa Margarita. “When she got hurt, she was tired and rubber-legged. Fortunately, she’s doing well. We got lucky there.”
Baffert was one of the most-outspoken proponents of returning to a dirt surface this season at Santa Anita and defends the decision to remove the synthetic material that had been here the three previous winters.
“I hear people complain about the track, but with the synthetics, I had about 30 horses turned out at the farm, and now I’ve got about eight,” he said. “And before, they’d go up there for eight months with tendons and suspensories, tibias, weird stuff.”
Baffert once co-authored a book called “Dirt Road to the Derby.” He’s on that road again.
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