LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Bob Baffert has suddenly gone from having a solid contender to having the solid favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
Last year's 2-year-old champion, Lookin At Lucky, assumed the role after Eskendereya was forced out of the field by a leg injury.
"There's no telling how good that horse was. Todd Pletcher has never brought a horse to the Derby like that," Baffert said on a cloudy and cold Monday at Churchill Downs. "The Derby dream just gets totally lost like that. It's horrible."
Baffert knows the feeling, though.
In 1998, Event of the Year was to be the Derby favorite, but broke a leg the week before the race. Baffert's horse, Indian Charlie, went off as the favorite. His other entry, Real Quiet, won, giving the trainer his second straight Derby victory.
Mike Pegram owned Real Quiet, who went on to win the Preakness, putting him and longtime friend Baffert on the brink of the Triple Crown. But the colt was beaten by a nose in the Belmont.
Now, Baffert and Pegram, who co-owns Lookin At Lucky, have a shot at making the head-spinning trip to the winner's circle together again.
"You appreciate it more as you get older. You understand what the Derby really means," Pegram said. "You know how fortunate and lucky you are to make the race and to have a chance to win it."
Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia calls Lookin At Lucky the "solid favorite" for Saturday's 1 1/4-mile race.
"I'm thinking he'll be right around 3-1 -- not as solid as Eskendereya would have been, but still pretty solid," said Battaglia, who will set the morning line at Wednesday's draw. "Then I'll probably have Sidney's Candy at right around 6-1 or 8-1, and then Awesome Act at right around the same odds."
Baffert believes Lookin At Lucky and Sidney's Candy should reverse their positions since the John Sadler-trained colt beat him by six lengths in
the Santa Anita Derby.
"He should have the favorite, it would be good for John," Baffert said, laughing.
The expected full field of 20 Derby horses shifted again Monday, with Pletcher eliminating Rule and adding filly Devil May Care. Despite the loss of Eskendereya, the trainer could have up to five starters as he tries to end an 0 for 24 skid in the Derby.
Still, he said losing Eskendereya, winner of his last two starts by a combined 18 1/4 lengths, was hard.
"No matter what happens on Saturday, there's always going to be that what-if," Pletcher said. "There's no way around it."
Rule's defection moved Jackson Bend onto the list of potential starters for trainer Nick Zito. The colt finished second to Eskendereya in the Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby, won by Ice Box, another starter for Zito.
Lookin At Lucky has improved daily since arriving at Churchill Downs last week. The colt with six wins in eight career starts completed his final major workout Monday, going five furlongs over an off-track in 1:00.80, the fastest of 26 workouts at the distance.
"If Garrett (Gomez) can just get him in the right spot, and give him a chance to win, that's all he needs," Baffert said. "If he turns for home and he's right there, he'll give it his all. He's a fierce competitor."
So is Baffert, although it's been eight years since he won his third Derby with War Emblem.
"It's on my resume," he said, "but I just have forgotten the feeling."
He thought he recaptured it last year, before his front-running Pioneerof the Nile was overtaken in the stretch by rail-hugging 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird.
"I was in shock," he said, standing on a blue plastic feed tub to rise above the media throng outside his barn. "This race is so hard to win."
Now 57, Baffert is competitive as ever, though his attitude has mellowed.
"We act older, we go to bed earlier," said Pegram, who is a year older and makes his money owning 26 McDonald's restaurants in Arizona and two casinos in Carson City, Nev.
Overhearing Pegram, Baffert's wife, Jill, cracks, "They're on Geritol."
Back in '98, Baffert was divorced from his first wife and Pegram was busy burnishing his good-time reputation, leading to late nights on the town between the buddies whose friendship dates to the mid-1980s.
These days, the Bafferts share a 6-year-old son and Pegram is remarried with teenage grandchildren of his own.
Racing deals out more losses than victories. Such advice is wasted on Pegram, whose sense of humor extends to naming his horses (Icecoldbeeratreds, Preachinatthebar and Loveontherail).
"That's what racing is all about, being with your friends and having a good time," the owner said.
Pegram, along with Lookin At Lucky's other owners, Arizona car dealers Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, is hands-off, trusting his friend's horse sense.
"When that pressure's off of you, it's so much easier to train horses," Baffert said. "If there wasn't a Kentucky Derby, I'd probably go sell cars with my clients. They're a lot of fun and they enjoy it."
If Lookin At Lucky or Baffert's other entry, Conveyance, win Saturday, he would tie fellow Hall of Famer D. Wayne Lukas and H.J. "Dick" Thompson for second-most Derby victories at four. Lukas will again try to stop him, this time with Dublin.
Baffert doesn't care which horse ends up in the winner's circle, as long as it's from his barn.
His elderly parents will be watching on television in Nogales, Ariz., where his mother, Ellie, is seriously ill.
"This may be her last Derby," he said. "She's rooting for me."