By: Rob Longley for Woodbine.com
TORONTO, April 26, 2018 – He’s a four-time winner and heads to Churchill Downs with the likely betting favourite for the 144th running of the Kentucky Derby, but does that mean that Bob Baffert has the horse to beat?
Not so fast says the silver-haired trainer of unbeaten Justify, the smooth-striding California-based colt who dazzled in winning the Santa Anita Derby in his most recent start.
“I’ve been there with the best horse and gotten beat. I know what it’s like,” Baffert said on an NTRA conference call on Thursday as the opening jewel of the Triple Crown nears. “You still need a lot of racing luck. You still have to go over there and hope everything goes your way. You can’t take anything for granted.”
Baffert has seen both sides of that in his career. He’s won with Real Quiet in 1998, a horse that going into the race wasn’t even considered the best in his barn. And he’s lost with a heavy favourite he didn’t think could be defeated, that being Point Given in 2001.
“I’ve been there with a lot of good horses and just didn’t get the right break,” said Baffert, whose most recent Derby win was with Triple Crown champ American Pharoah in 2015. “Crazy things happen in the Derby when you have 20 horses and those gates open.
“You have to have the right horse, you can’t force it to happen. Point Given, I thought he couldn’t lose and then he just didn’t run that day.”
Baffert is justifiably a believer in Justify but from what he’s seen in a superb prep season for this year’s Run For the Roses, he knows it will be a tough field to conquer.
“We know we have a really good horse but there are lots of good horses out there right now,” Baffert said. “This is probably the most competitive Kentucky Derby I’ve seen in years.”
CURSES TO THE CURSE
This is not the first you’ve heard of the Apollo curse and it most surely won’t be the last. But both Baffert and trainer Todd Pletcher had interesting takes on the incredible run back to 1882 that hasn’t seen a horse that was unlaced at two capture the Derby.
“It’s lasted long enough that I guess there has to be something to it,” Pletcher said on Thursday’s NTRA call. “But I feel strongly that at some point somebody’s going to revers the curse. If it’s this year, I wouldn’t be surprised. Justify is a very talented colt and Magnum Moon is too.
“It always helps in these situations to have some experience and overcome adversity, but I think that when the right horse comes along it will happen.”
Baffert is also a believer that an ancient curse isn’t going to be what gets Justify beaten, should that happen. In fact, he suggests that trends in the way young horses are being brought along make it inevitable.
“Back in the day people used to run their horses much earlier,” Baffert said. “The game has changed. You don’t run them as early as two-year-olds any more. I’d rather have a really talented horse over a horse that’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them.”
Gronkowski the football player may still be at the Derby but the fact that Gronkowski the horse will not should make Churchull Downs a slightly more normal spot on the big day. Emphasis on slightly.
The defection of the European invader was removed from the field earlier this week after coming down with a mild infection. The colt’s owner, Phoenix Thoroughbreds, says Gronkowski will now be pointed to the third jewel of the Triple Crown, the June 9 Belmont Stakes in New York.
Another colt backed out of the Derby field when Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip opted to focus on the Preakness.
BRINGING THE HEAT
Trainer Mark Casse’s Flameaway – the Canadian rooting incident for this year’s Derby – continues to progress. The colt had a solid five furlong work in 1.00 2/5 earlier this week and impressed his connections with the way he was ridden out.
The John Oxley-owned colt, who broke his maiden at Woodbine last spring, will be ridden in the Derby by Jose Lezcano, whose best result in the race was a runner-up showing aboard Ice Box in 2010.
Oxley, meanwhile, while be looking for his second Derby win. He was the owner of 2001 champ Monarchos, whose 1:59 4/5 winning effort for the 1 1/4 miles still stands as the stakes record.
DERBY TOP FIVE
1. Justify, Trainer Bob Baffert
On Thursday Baffert admitted he’s on “pins and needles” as the Derby approaches but that all systems are go. “We’re excited about him. We’re almost there,” Baffert said. Justify is expected to be listed as the morning line favourite when post positions are drawn next Wednesday.
2. Mendelssohn, Trainer Aidan O’Brien
The horse with the impeccable credentials – trainer O’Brien and jockey Ryan Moore, will be one of the great stories of Derby week as the UAE Derby winner attempts to make history. We love him for the same reason we’re fond of Justify – the smoothness with which he moves.
3. Good Magic, Trainer Chad Brown
Most observers believe Brown will win a Derby one day and most believe this is his best chance yet. In many other years, he’d be a clear-cut favourite but with so many contenders he just cracks our Top 3.
4. Audible, Trainer Todd Pletcher
We’d much prefer to have Pletcher as an entry but where would the fun (not to mention value) be in that? We love the Florida Derby as key race angle, however, a point the trainer emphasized on Thursday.
5. Bolt d’Oro, Trainer Mick Ruiz
We’ll put the Santa Anita Derby runner-up back on our list based on the solid reviews he’s getting in his morning gallops at Churchill Downs.