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Billy Reed's Derby Diary: It's Baffert's race to lose

Published: Apr. 21, 2015 at 8:25 PM EDT|Updated: May. 5, 2015 at 8:25 PM EDT
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LOUISVILLE, KY (WAVE) - No matter how you cut it, Bob Baffert is the straw that stirs the mint julep in the 141st Kentucky Derby.

If you're throwing a party, he's the guy you want at your best table. If you're a politician heading into an election, you want to get your photo taken with your arm around his shoulder.

All roads lead to his barn at Churchill Downs. The media goes into full stampede mode at the first sight of his unruly white mane and trademark tinted glasses. They gather around, notepads and smartphones in hands, and then go deep in their dictionaries to find adjectives and superlatives to describe the two horses he's bringing into the Derby.

Some old-timers are suggesting that American Pharaoh and Dortmund may be the best 1-2 punch any trainer has brought to the Derby since Ben A. Jones and his son Jimmy had Citation and Coaltown for Calumet Farm in 1948. That's saying a lot, folks. Citation beat Coaltown by 3.5 lengths on his way to the Triple Crown, and Coaltown finished three lengths ahead of the third-place My Request.

But here's something important to consider: The 1948 Derby had a field of six; the 2015 Derby will have at least 18, maybe 20. That can turn the Derby into rush hour on the Watterson. In big fields, the best horse often gets stopped in traffic and runs out of time before he runs out of run.

The traffic figures to be more of a problem for Dortmund than American Pharaoh. He's so big – more than 17 hands high, as racing people measure these things – that Baffert likens him to Shaquille O'Neal. Big horses tend to be one-run horses, meaning that when they get in gear, they need to avoid getting checked. They are not push-button horses with several gears.

American Pharaoh is smaller, but niftier. His past performances indicate he likes to run on the lead, and that also can be a problem in the Derby. In order to handle the mile-and-a-quarter distance, a horse can't afford to get caught into a suicidal fight for the lead. If he does, he generally won't have anything left for Churchill's stretch, the second longest (behind the Fair Grounds) in the U.S.

But such stuff doesn't seem to bother any of the experts who have gone bonkers over Baffert's tandem. Even the toughest critics are having trouble finding fault with American Pharaoh's stunning eight-length romp in the Arkansas Derby. That's the Picasso of this year's prep races, one that puts all else in the shade, including Dortmund's 4¼-length romp in the Santa Anita Derby.

Yet there's also this: Dortmund is unbeaten in six career starts and American Pharaoh blew his debut last August at Del Mar. Since then, however, Pharaoh has won his five starts by a combined 22¼ lengths. He is 4-0 with Victor Espinoza in his saddle. Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia says he'll probably make Pharaoh a slight favorite over Dortmund. If they were coupled as a betting entry, as used to be the case, they would likely be even money or less.

So it's Baffert's world and everybody else is just living in it. On Tuesday morning, the trainer dropped in to check on American Pharaoh before heading back to California, where Dortmund will have his final pre-Derby workout on Sunday morning before being shipped to Churchill Downs.

Naturally, the media asked about pressure and Baffert gave them a good sound bite, as he always does. But let's face it: He's the guy in the catbird's seat, the one everybody else is trying to beat. Pressure? That might belong to the trainer who knows his horse doesn't belong or who's trying to cover up a physical problem. But Baffert knows the cards he's holding and he's letting the other players do the sweating.

This is hardly Baffert's first rodeo. He came to Louisville in 1996 with a colt named Cavonnier and got beat by Grindstone in a photo finish. Then he won the Derby back-to-back with Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet in 1998. His third – and most recent – Derby win came with War Emblem in 2003.

But he also knows what it's like to have probably the best horse in the race and lose. That happened to him with Point Given in 2001 and Bodemeister in 2012. On the first Saturday in May at Churchill Downs, logic often takes a break and luck means everything. So Baffert knows better than any trainer in this year's field that it's foolish to expect anything other than what the racing gods have in store.

When he gets back to town, everybody will want a piece of him. The media will be camped outside his barn. He'll hear the snapping of a zillion shutters. When he goes out for dinner, he'll get the best table at any restaurant he picks and a stranger will likely pick up the check. That's what it's like when you're The Man at the 141st Kentucky Derby.

Billy Reed is a longtime sports columnist who lives in Louisville.

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