By BILLY REED | WAVE 3 News
Bob Baffert owns the Kentucky Derby unlike any trainer in the great race’s history. That’s saying a lot, considering that the Derby will be run for the 145th time on Saturday at Churchill Downs.
It’s true, though. Go through the list of legendary trainers — Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons, Ben A. Jones, Woody Stephens, Laz Barrera, D. Wayne Lukas — and you will see that Baffert, he of the white mane and tinted glasses, has dominated the race in unprecedented fashion since his debut in 1996.
He’s the straw that stirs the julep, the media’s favorite quote machine, the center of attention everywhere he goes around Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
It’s a wonder that track president Kevin Flanery doesn’t serve Bob and his wife Jill breakfast in bed, that Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer doesn’t personally chauffer him to the track, and that actress Jennifer Lawrence doesn’t beg him to be in her next movie. Heck, for all we know, maybe they do.
At 66, Baffert has won the Derby five times, meaning he needs only one to tie Jones for the all-time record. But impressive as that is, he moved into a class alone by training two Triple Crown winners (American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify last year) in four years.
And now, amazingly, he stands on the brink of another feat previously thought to be impossible. In the 145th Derby, he could become the first trainer ever to finish 1-2-3. His three contenders — Game Winner, Improbable, and Roadster — were the top three picks in the early betting line.
Baffert’s Derby winners, other than American Pharoah and Justify, were Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002. Each of them won the Preakness to become Triple Crown candidates, but fell short in the Belmont Stakes.
He also could have easily won the Derby with Cavonnier in 1996 (beaten a nose by Grindstone), Point Given in 2001 (he won both the Preakness and Belmont), Pioneerof The Nile (second in 2009), and Bodemeister in 2012. Bodemeister, named for his son, looked like a winner inside the eighth pole, but was overtaken by I’ll Have Another.
Easily the most recognizable figure in a sport desperately in need of stars, Baffert was pretty much a party animal when he first came to the Derby. But a serious heart attack suffered in 2001 turned him into a different person.
Still quotable and personable, Baffert also watches his diet carefully. He also has become more appreciative of life, family, friends, and his extraordinary career. Jill, who was working as a reporter in Louisville when they met, has helped him manage his stress and lead a more peaceful life.
Of his three Derby contenders, Baffert seems to like Game Winner best. He won last year’s Breeders Cup Juvenile at Churchill and the Eclipse Award as a champion 2-year-old colt.
Although Game Winner finished second to stablemate Roadster in the Santa Anita Derby, Baffert sill has a lot of confidence in him. But there’s certainly nothing to dislike about Roadster, who has won three of his four career starts.
The third Baffert-trained contender, Improbable, was shipped from California to try Omaha Beach in the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. Although Omaha Beach won to become the Kentucky Derby favorite, Improbable ran a strong second. He’s a colt who likes to run near the lead, which may serve him well in a Derby that doesn’t figure to have a sizzling pace.
Still, it’s a bit much to think any trainer can finish first, second, and third in the race every horseman wants to win. That would be as impressive as Stephens’ five consecutive wins in the Belmont, one of the few training accomplishments that probably will elude Baffert.
But if Baffert does it, Louisville will have to do something special for him. Maybe rename a bridge or a street or a school in his honor. Put up a statue near the finish line. Get Brown-Forman to name a new bourbon in his honor.
So welcome to Baffertville and the 145th Kentucky Derby. You won’t be able to turn around in any night spot without hearing his name. If you don’t have a favorite, you could do worse than putting his horses in an exacta box.
Improbable that he will run 1-2-3? Certainly. But Baffert specializes in the improbable, and now, it says here, he’s going to have a Derby winner by that name.