Bob Baffert is riding high these days, knowing he holds a pair of aces heading into the Kentucky Derby.
The white-haired trainer has the probable favorite in either undefeated Dortmund or American Pharoah, giving him a double shot at winning America’s greatest race for the fourth time.
He’s just not his old cocky self about it.
At 62, having survived a heart attack three years ago in Dubai, Baffert feels grateful to be back in position to win another Derby, which would move him into a tie for second-most among trainers. He hasn’t smelled the roses since 2002 with War Emblem.
“This is the time of year where we take nothing for granted, we work hard, we have a great team,” he said, spreading the credit around to his stable help. “We want to get there in top form and healthy. That’s the battle right there. I can’t believe I’m so fortunate to be in this position with two outstanding 3-year-olds like I have.”
Todd Pletcher is even luckier. He’s got four horses set to run on May 2 in the 1 1/4-mile race, with Blue Grass winner Carpe Diem as his leading contender.
Of course, big numbers are nothing new for the New York-based trainer.
He had five runners two years ago, and his best finish was third. Last year, he saddled four horses and again finished no higher than third. Pletcher’s lone Derby win came in 2010 with Super Saver.
Besides Carpe Diem, Pletcher’s other horses are: Materiality, Itsaknockout and Stanford. His fifth horse, Madefromlucky, bowed out Friday when his owners said they decided not to run in the Derby. That moved Keen Ice into the field.
One of the deepest and most talented fields in recent years — a full 20 horses — will break from the gate for the 141st Derby at Churchill Downs. The lineup won’t be finalized until Wednesday, when entries are drawn and post positions are assigned.
“It might be the toughest Derby that we’ve had in quite a few years,” said Kieran McLaughlin, who trains Wood Memorial winner Frosted.
Pletcher’s mentor, D. Wayne Lukas, has a shot at making Derby history. The 79-year-old Hall of Famer could become the oldest trainer to win with Mr Z. The four-time Derby winner would surpass Art Sherman, who was 77 when California Chrome won last year.
Dortmund comes into the Derby with a 6-0 record, equaling the marks of Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones when they won the Derby in 1977 and 2004, respectively. He’s got the pedigree, too, having been sired by 2008 Derby winner Big Brown. His front-running style could keep him out of trouble in the jammed field.
American Pharoah romped to an eight-length victory in his last race at the Arkansas Derby. His sire, Pioneerof the Nile, finished second in the 2009 Derby.
“Of course, any time Bob Baffert has a couple of Kentucky Derby horses you have to give him a lot of respect,” Pletcher said. “He’s certainly tremendous at getting horses there and having them perform well.”
Among owners, Ahmed Zayat has three contenders: American Pharoah, El Kabeir and Mr Z.
The ruling Maktoum family of Dubai is back at the Derby for the first time since 2009 trying to improve its 0 for 7 mark. Their Godolphin Racing outfit has Frosted, who has been training in the U.S. and figures to be right behind the top favorites in the wagering.
“Godolphin’s camp is always wanting to win the big races around the world, and they have been fortunate to win so many of them, but the Derby has eluded them,” McLaughlin said.
Ireland-bred Mubtaahij is owned by Sheikh Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum, a member of Dubai royalty. The well-traveled colt is based overseas and has run everywhere from England to Dubai. He could become the first Derby winner to prep outside the U.S. since Canonero II in 1971.
Mubtaahij won the UAE Derby, giving trainer Mike de Kock enough confidence to enter the Derby.
“I probably picked the worst year when it comes to the opposition, but at the end of the day you never know,” the South African trainer said. “It’s a sporting event, it’s a horse race. There’s no guarantees.”
No one knows that better than Baffert and Pletcher.
Both trainers have had early favorites either forced out at the last minute or be done in by the pace or post position.
“We’re trying to keep our excitement to a normal level because I know the disappointment in this game,” Baffert said. “I know that uppercut is waiting for you around the corner.”