From now until he stops training horses, there’s only one thing you need to know on Kentucky Derby Day: Never bet against Bob.
You’d think we’d have learned our lesson by now. No matter whether Bob Baffert brings expensive horses to Churchill Downs or cheap ones, how they’ve run in the prep races or whether they look like they can get to the 1 1/4-mile distance, they show up on Derby Day. Goodness, do they show up.
A quarter century after Baffert’s first nibble at horse racing’s most coveted prize when his Cavonnier lost to Grindstone by a nose, there is only one incontrovertible truth in the Derby. Putting your money on anyone but Baffert is probably the first step to lighting it on fire.
Baffert won his record-breaking seventh Kentucky Derby on Saturday with Medina Spirit, a horse whose breeding was so modest and physical attributes so unimpressive that he drew a single bid for $1,000 at a yearling auction and sold again last summer for just $35,000.
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This spring, as he usually does, Baffert had several flashy-looking colts spread out across the country that seemed more likely to get him to the winner’s circle at Churchill Downs. But for one reason or another, his top prospects all fell by the wayside.
By Derby week, Baffert’s only entry was Medina Spirit, who was pretty much an afterthought after running a non-threatening second to Rock Your World in the Santa Anita Derby. Despite the Baffert factor, Medina Spirit was pretty much dismissed by bettors and went off at 12-1.
“There were some Derbies I lost and thought I couldn’t lose but this is the only Derby I came in thinking, I just don’t know if we’ve got the goods,” Baffert said.
In retrospect, we all should have known. This is just what Baffert does.
And it’s no accident.
Sure, Baffert’s success is, in a sense, part of a self-perpetuating cycle. When he started to win the Derby again and again, owners with roses in their eyes started sending him more of their talented and well-bred 2-year-olds year in and year out.
That’s a huge advantage, but in horse racing, it guarantees absolutely nothing. Todd Pletcher also gets a lot of great young horses in his barn, as do Chad Brown and Steve Asmussen. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the owner of fourth-place finisher Essential Quality who was the favorite Saturday, has spent many tens of millions of dollars trying to win the Kentucky Derby and has never had a horse finish in the top three.
“I’m the luckiest guy in the world,” Baffert said after the race on NBC. “I told his owner (Amr Zedan) maybe we have a chance. I’m so spoiled bringing these heavy duty horses in here but that little horse has such a big heart and that guy made it happen.”
With Baffert, though, it’s way more than luck. You don’t win the Derby seven times without knowing how to get a horse fit to run the longest distance they’ve ever had to go against a huge field where anything can happen.
What separates Baffert from his peers is that he understands that front-running speed is the most important characteristic in modern horse racing. The evidence? His last five Derby winners all did it either wire-to-wire or just off the early lead where they were clear of any traffic trouble entering the final turn.
Over the course of its history, that’s not the norm for the Derby. This is a race that was usually won by horses with stamina in their blood that were trained to make one big explosive move in the final quarter of a mile. Even as recently as the 1990s, it was somewhat rare for a front-runner to win the Derby.
But with the general breeding philosophy in America evolving to become more speed-oriented over the last few decades, Baffert has made a fundamental bet that distance isn’t as relevant as it used to be. If he has a horse that can get to the lead and cruise at a high speed, they’ll be tough to catch because they’re all going to be tired coming home. In the Derby, particularly, getting to the front means avoiding a lot of the traffic troubles that horses encounter jockeying for position on the first turn and saving ground turning for home.
That paid off again in this one, as jockey John Velazquez got Medina Spirit out of the gate cleanly and hustled him to the front right away. The surprise was that he never got a ton of pressure on the backstretch, setting a reasonable pace of 23.09 seconds for the first quarter and 46.70 for the half-mile. In that sense, it was almost a carbon copy of Baffert’s win last year with Authentic, who was similarly overlooked at 8-1 but ran comfortably on the lead for most of the race and had plenty left to repel a challenge from Tiz the Law.
Every time you think Baffert has done the best training job of his career, he keeps one-upping himself. If it wasn’t breaking horse racing’s 37-year Triple Crown drought with American Pharoah or backing it up with another Triple Crown win a three years later with Justify, maybe it’s winning the Derby with a horse that could have been bought for $1,000.
Baffert’s massive success, of course, has come with some jealousy and controversy. Last year, Baffert had multiple high-profile horses fail post-race drug tests, including the filly Gamine and Charlatan, who both showed traces of lidocaine after running on Arkansas Derby day last year. Baffert attributed it to a pain patch worn by an assistant trainer and eventually got the disqualification overturned by the Arkansas Racing Commission. Later in the year, Gamine was also disqualified from her third-place finish in the Kentucky Oaks after testing positive for betamethasone.
All that came on the heels of a revelation that Justify had failed a drug test before the 2018 Kentucky Derby, which was blamed on jimsom weed contamination in his feed and not made public until more than a year later.
Last fall, Baffert said he was hiring outside oversight help to try to mitigate any oversights or mistakes.
For some critics, the very existence of those issues brings suspicion on his name every time he wins a big race.
But no matter which horse Baffert brings to the Derby next year and the year after that and the year after that, it will be hard to pick against him. In a notably fickle sport, it seems to be surest bet there is.