Of the multitude of lessons that shaped Bob Baffert’s progression from overly brash gate crasher of the nation’s top races to Hall of Fame trainer and national darling, it was to never, ever take any of Thoroughbred racing’s peaks for granted.
It was reinforced when he won three Kentucky Derbies in six years from 1997 to 2002, taking the oft-proclaimed toughest race in North America and making it look easy. Then came a drought in the classics, the heart attack that almost killed him, followed by the most storybook of scripts a bright bay son of Pioneerof the Nile provided last season.
So when the man who conditioned American Pharoah is asked if training the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years has somehow lessened his desire to win the classics, the response was something that didn’t need pondering.
“You know, we work hard trying to get there. And … you get to the point where you were sort of expected to get there. But it’s not easy,” Baffert said. “It’s hard — so when you have a horse like Mor Spirit and Cupid that look like they’re going to be competitive, it’s like, it’s an honor to be saying hey, you know what? Maybe there’s a little hope, a little dream there.”
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A trainer’s career is built entirely on chasing dreams, and then trying to do them one better when achieved. After reigning over the 2015 Triple Crown season, Baffert is back with a pair of hopefuls this year in Santa Anita Derby runner-up Mor Spirit and Cupid, the 2-to-1 morning line favorite for Saturday’s Grade I, $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park.
Even before American Pharoah used the prep races in Hot Springs to get his brilliant self right en route to sweeping the American classics, Oaklawn had been one of Baffert’s favorite launching pads. Since 2010, Baffert-trained runners are 15-for-27 in graded stakes at Oaklawn, including Cupid’s 1¼-length win in the Grade II Rebel Stakes on March 19.
Mor Spirit has been on the radar since winning the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity last December, but Cupid might be regarded as the more purely talented of the two. The son of Tapit is unbeaten in two tries, stretching out beyond a mile, and he has an effortless stride in the same vein as his former history-making stablemate.
What made American Pharoah great was not simply that he was faster, stronger, better than the rest of his generation. It was the fact there was no drop off in that level of excellence.
“A lot of horses, they’ve have a short window of being great,” Baffert explained. “And Pharaoh had a window that was open all year long. That’s what separates him. I’ve had a lot of horses that were just as fast as Pharaoh, but their window was only open for a few races.”
The Derby Dozen
1. Nyquist: Had his usual steady move in his return to the worktab at Keeneland on Friday. He was officially credited with a 5 furlong work in 1:02.60, but trainer Doug O’Neill had him two-minute lick — an open gallop — the first half mile and got the unbeaten champion in 1:50 for 8 furlongs. “This is what we do at home a lot of the time,” O’Neill said. “He has enough natural speed that we are not looking to add any speed and we will continue with the maintenance.”
2. Brody’s Cause: The son of Giant’s Causeway ran himself back into being a top-5 Kentucky Derby contender with the turn of foot he showed in winning the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes last Saturday. Brody’s Cause might be a closer, but he’s no one’s plodder. He has enough speed to beat others to the open holes, a move that has allowed him to stay out of major traffic trouble, and he did break his maiden at Churchill Downs.
3. Exaggerator: Look who decided to come around at the right time. The son of Curlin shut down questions of whether he could handle added distance when he made a breathtaking move on the final turn of the Grade I Santa Anita Derby en route to a 6¼-length victory. He had already proven he could run with the top in his division so it was a welcome sight to see the dark bay colt finish the job with such authority. If it rains on Kentucky Derby day, use him heavily. How much the slop moved him up, however, remains the question. “The way he finished today and the way he galloped out … if we get a fast pace then I don’t think there’s any problem with (the Derby distance),” trainer Keith Desormeaux said.
4. Cupid: Baffert said the son of Tapit showed him a new dimension when he won the Grade II Rebel Stakes last month, but that the colt can’t keep getting away with breaking as lackluster as he did in that outing. “We really got lucky last time,” Baffert said. “He has to leave there with the field. He’s never really broken really good for some reason. He’s a very fast horse and he’s a beautiful, long-striding horse. His speed is his weapon so he needs to get away from there.”
5. Gun Runner: Continued his Kentucky Derby preparations with a 5-furlong breeze in 1:01 over a fast track Monday morning at Churchill Downs. Scott Blasi, assistant to trainer Steve Asmussen, said the son of Candy Ride has changed physically and become more manageable in the aftermath of his Louisiana Derby victory. “He’s still playful, but he’s definitely getting there,” Blasi said. “He’s settled in how we’ve wanted him to and hopefully we’ll have good works leading up to the Derby.”
6. Mohaymen: The multiple graded stakes winning son of Tapit is scheduled to arrive at Churchill Downs on Sunday around 10 a.m. The company Mohaymen has kept has not flattered him of late. Greenpointcrusader, second behind the Kiaran McLaughlin-trainee in the Grade II Holy Bull, finished seventh in the Louisiana Derby while Fountain of Youth Stakes runner up Zulu was 12th in the Blue Grass Stakes. It’s not the end all be all, but when you compare it to Nyquist — who counts Brody’s Cause and Exaggerator among his vanquished — it makes one wonder how much of Mohaymen’s dominance was enhanced by what he was facing.
7. Mor Spirit: Baffert is taking a “we got through it” attitude with regard to Mor Spirit’s second-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby. The son of Eskendereya didn’t take kindly to the amount of mud in his face but he still plugged away and has not been worse than second in seven career starts. “It looked like he wasn’t going to run anywhere. He looked like he was going to be out of it,” Baffert said. “And then he just kept moving right along. So I think it was better than it looked.”
8. Outwork: The first winner for Uncle Mo became his outstanding sire’s latest Kentucky Derby contender with his narrow victory in the Grade I Wood Memorial last weekend. The final time of 1:52.92 over the muddy track was the slowest ever for the race and he was all out to beat a maiden in Trojan Nation. That’s the bad news. The good news is that the Mike Repole homebred has won at three different tracks in his four career starts so he’s not surface sensitive.
9. Mo Tom: Turned in his first breeze since his fourth-place finish in the Grade II Louisiana Derby, going a half-mile breeze in :48.40 over a fast track Wednesday morning at Churchill Downs. The jockey situation is still being shored up as Corey Lanerie, Mo Tom’s regular rider, also piloted Blue Grass Stakes third-place runner Cherry Wine and has the mount on Unbridled Outlaw in the Arkansas Derby. “At this time we’re not doing anything,” trainer Tom Amoss said. “We aren’t putting our chips on the table yet, we’re going to see what happens after this weekend and talk to Corey and see what his feelings are about the horses he’s riding besides Mo Tom.”
10. Destin: Remains at Palm Beach Downs in Florida to prepare for the Kentucky Derby, which will be his first start since winning the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby on March 12. Is slated to breeze again this Saturday and trainer Todd Pletcher plans to ship the son of Giant’s Causeway to Churchill Downs around April 25.
11. Whitmore: After runner-up efforts in the Grade III Southwest and Grade II Rebel Stakes, he gets his chance to get over the hump in Saturday’s Grade I Arkansas Derby. “Maybe instead of going nine-wide, we’ll be able to go four-wide. Instead of being 12 back, going a mile and a sixteenth, maybe you can be six back on a mile and an eighth,” trainer Ron Moquett said. “And that could make a difference.”
12. My Man Sam: Got a little lost in the shuffle of last weekend’s huge slate of Kentucky Derby prep races but he made a huge rally from the back of the field to get up for second in the Blue Grass Stakes. “I thought he ran great considering that difficult post position,” trainer Chad Brown said. “He finished strong and … earned enough points if we want to run in the Derby, which we do, so if he comes out of the race okay which so far he has he’ll also move over to Churchill on the 19th and have two workouts over the track.”
The Next Dozen: Suddenbreakingnews, Cherry Wine, Lani, Fellowship, Uncle Lino, Danzing Candy, Tom’s Ready, Shagaf, Dazzling Gem, Trojan Nation, Majesto, Unbridled Outlaw.