Baffert Sets Eyes On Another Preakness Prize

When Zayat Stable’s favored American Pharoah won the 2015 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands at Churchill Downs on Saturday, May 2, he carried trainer Bob Baffert into special territory.

The victory in the Run for the Roses was Baffert’s fourth, which placed him in a tie for second on the all-time Derby win list with living legend D. Wayne Lukas (Winning Colors, 1988; Thunder Gulch, 1995; Grindstone, 1996 and Charismatic, 1999) and Derby Dick Thompson, who collected his quarter of wins with Col. E.R. Bradley’s “B” team of Behave Yourself (1921), Bubbling Over (1926), Burgoo King (1932) and Brokers Tip (1933). The trio trails Calumet Farm’s Ben Jones, the all-time Derby win leader with six.

After he finished a nose behind Lukas and Grindstone in his Derby debut in 1996, Baffert reeled off back-to-back victories with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet the following year.  He won again in 2002 with War Emblem, a colt that joined stable only weeks before the Derby.  But a 13-year for another Derby triumph followed, and finally ended when American Pharoah provided him win number four.

With the scent of roses and memories of American Pharoah’s special day still fresh in mind,  Baffert has turned his attention to a journey to Baltimore and Pimlico Race Course, where both American Pharoah and Kaleem Shah’s Dortmund, the Baffert-trained third-place finisher in Derby 141, will run in Saturday’s mile-and-three-sixteenths Preakness, the second jewel in racing’s Triple Crown.

Baffert in the Winner’s Circle for his fourth Kentucky Derby win. Photo by AMBER CHALFIN | Contributing Photographer

Baffert in the Winner’s Circle for his fourth Kentucky Derby win. Photo by AMBER CHALFIN | Contributing Photographer

Baffert insists his trip to Maryland is more about smiles than any shot at racing history.  Following his long gap between Derby wins, he finally made another walk across the Churchill Downs track to the winner’s circle that is used once each year.  That real estate is reserved for the winner of the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s just so hard to get across the track to that winner’s circle,” Baffert said Monday after watching American Pharoah and Dortmund gallop at Churchill Downs.  “It was totally a different vibe for me this year.  It was more an appreciation.

“I’ve been here so many times.  Before I felt like I won the Derby.  I didn’t win the Derby – the horse won the Derby, and the other one (Dortmund) ran well.”

While it would be an exaggeration to suggest that the Preakness is easy game for Baffert, he clearly has a knack for winning the race.  A Saturday victory by either of his horses would be Baffert’s sixth Preakness triumph.  It would lift him into a tie with fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas for second on the all-time win list for trainers in the second jewel of the Triple Crown.

“I’ve always been relaxed going into the Preakness, because you’ve won the Derby,” Baffert said. “It’s more like, ‘Hey, I won the Derby – what are you fretting about?’”

Should American Pharoah make the Preakness his sixth consecutive victory, Baffert’s mood will quickly change.  That development would put him on a very familiar road to Belmont Park and a bid by his colt to become the first 3-year-old Thoroughbred since 1978 to sweep American racing’s Triple Crown with a triumph in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes.

Baffert’s three previous Kentucky Derby winners won the Derby and the Preakness, but could not take the Belmont. But despite those historic near-misses, Baffert insisted that the winning the Preakness, a race he also won with beaten Kentucky Derby favorites Point Given in 2001 and Lookin At Lucky in 2010, is his only objective at this point.  With the pressure to win the Kentucky Derby with the favored American Pharoah now lifted, Baffert likened his Preakness journey to a trip to summer camp.

“I know what it is to go through it (the Triple Crown),” Baffert said. “In the other my other races in which we went for the Triple Crown, I wasn’t thinking Triple Crown.  I was thinking Preakness and then all the sudden afterwards, you go ‘Oh, boy, here we go.’  And then it’s not fun anymore and you’ve got to be thinking about that.  But right now it’s fun.

“Let’s just get this one (the Preakness).  Let’s get him (American Pharoah) ready for this, and then after that we’ll all know if he’s that kind of horse and if he can handle it.  That’s what it’s all about.”

Regardless of what happens on Saturday, or three weeks further down the road at Belmont Park, Baffert seems to be a man with a satisfied mind.  During that span of 13 years without a victory in the Kentucky Derby, he became a father again, and 10-year-old Bode Baffert was a near-constant companion during Derby Week at Churchill Downs.  Three years ago, he endured a brush with mortality when he suffered a heart attack during a plane flight to Dubai.

But just days before his bid for a another win in the Triple Crown classic in Baltimore, Baffert remained gregarious, quick with a quip and ready with an easy laugh. That is, until he talked about his Kentucky Derby experience with owner-breeder Ahmed Zayat, who won his first Derby after three runner-up finishes, and all who are close to Baffert, his family and his stable.

The words in that part of his conversation clearly traveled directly from his heart.

“I’ve been through all of that (with the Triple Crown), but the Derby, to me, matters most,” Baffert said.  “There’s just something about it.  It’s a different animal.  It’s got its history, and it’s emotional.

“I wish every trainer in the business could enjoy this moment that we go through.  We work so hard and, to me, when you win the Derby it’s almost like a report card.  You must have done something nice in your life to deserve something like this.” VT