BALTIMORE — Bob Baffert’s five Kentucky Derby winners have all won the Preakness two weeks later. Beaten Baffert-trained Derby favorites, Point Given (rare misjudged ride by Gary Stevens) and Lookin At Lucky (absolutely brutal trip from the rail), came right back to win the Preakness.
So a record-tying seven Preakness wins for the man his friend and rival D. Wayne Lukas calls “the best trainer in America without a doubt, maybe the world, but he’s damn sure the best trainer in America.”
That is a debate that can’t really be settled. There is no question Baffert is the greatest Triple Crown trainer ever, surpassing Lukas in Triple Crown wins last year when Justify finished off the trainer’s second Triple Crown with his third Belmont Stakes win, giving him 15 TC wins overall.
Baffert almost never wins grass races because he doesn’t try. He wins other major races, witness Breeders’ Cup Classic wins in 2014, 2015 and 2016. He has completely dominated the last two Belmont Stakes day cards, winning with sprinters, milers, fillies and colts. But it is the Triple Crown where he is singularly focused and where he has cracked the code.
Modern-day trainers rarely run their best horses back in two weeks after a major stakes race. Baffert’s seven Preakness wins show that his program is a throwback to when horses were trained harder and faster and did not need so much time between races.
The Baffert-trained Improbable was a somewhat surprising Derby favorite when a flood of late money poured in to make him 4-1. The Baffert-trained Game Winner actually had a much better record, but the public settled on Improbable.
Improbable finished fifth in the Derby, but was moved up to fourth after Maximum Security was disqualified from first and placed 17th. Like so many others in the 19-horse field, Improbable was surrounded by other horses and never really had a free run until the stretch. Even then, he never had the big punch that has made so many Baffert horses famous.
“Point Given was a beast,” Baffert said. “This horse has run some big races, hasn’t run a bad one, always shows up. That’s what I like about that horse … It’s still a pretty even bunch. As we saw in the Derby, they’re all right there. That’s why there was so much traffic. They all have the same style, so you still have to get lucky.”
Indeed, but the Preakness is much less about luck than the Derby. Almost all of the Derby dreamers go home after their horses retreat in the Churchill Downs homestretch. The Preakness is almost always a truer-run race.
With American Pharoah and Justify, Baffert knew what he had prior to the Derby and his confidence shone through every time he spoke. He never had that kind of confidence in his three Derby horses this year. Nor does he sound like he thinks Preakness morning-line favorite Improbable is anything close to a cinch.
“I just inherited it, I think,’’ Baffert said. "But I wouldn’t say he’s a heavy, heavy favorite. It’s still wide open. Improbable still needs to get away [from the gate]. For some reason, the first 100 yards, he scrambles a little bit. For a horse with as much natural speed as he has, it takes him a while to get going.
“In the Derby, he was right behind those horses and when Maximum Security slowed it down [on the backstretch], everybody was bottled up behind. It was one of those things where he was fifth and stayed fifth the whole way, there was no moving.”
And there is the matter of Improbable getting the services of jockey Mike Smith for the first time. The greatest big-race combination of this era will almost ensure Improbable goes favored.
“We won’t have any of the Derby winners in there,” Baffert said, referring to the DQ’d Maximum Security and official winner Country House. “It’s still going to be an exciting race. To me, it’s still an important race. I really enjoy going to these races. I like the Preakness. I really enjoy it; it’s a lot of fun. The pressure is off. We go in there and have a good time."
Baffert especially has a good time at the Preakness. He does not show up with long shots. When he brings 3-year-olds to Pimlico, he must be taken very seriously.
“All the Classics are really enjoyable,’’ Baffert said. "It’s just a different type of race. It’s all about the 3-year-olds The Breeders’ Cup is like the Olympics, different divisions. These Classics are all about the 3-year-olds. There are a lot of new shooters in here that look tough. … So it’s not a gimme. I’m not going in there feeling like I know I have the heavy muscle. I think I have a really good horse, but it’s a pretty tough race.”