Kentucky Derby

Baffert's Bodemeister might have talent to defy history

Bodemeister, ridden by George Alvarez, galloped through a morning workout Saturday at Churchill Downs. Next Saturday the colt trained by Bob Baffert will be one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby.
Bodemeister, ridden by George Alvarez, galloped through a morning workout Saturday at Churchill Downs. Next Saturday the colt trained by Bob Baffert will be one of the favorites in the Kentucky Derby. Herald-Leader

LOUISVILLE — He is clearly just a baby, the bay colt with the crooked blaze residing in Barn 33 at Churchill Downs. That much is evident not only by his physique, which is still very much growing into itself, but by the quizzical way he jutted his nose toward a pair of female admirers Friday morning — the latest in a stream of visitors wanting an up-close view of racing's newest prodigy.

As the swirl of activity increases and, with it, the demands on his ability, Bodemeister still manages to shake off his glaring youth and show poise beyond his years.

In six days, the colt trained by Bob Baffert will be asked to pull off a feat that has taken down eventual champions and Hall of Famers, one that history says his inexperience will almost certainly render impossible.

No horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Kentucky Derby without racing at age 2, the very trend Bodemeister will be trying to buck when he starts in the 138th edition of the race on Saturday. But if the colt follows the example both his owner and trainer have set recently, he will become just the latest member of the team to defy difficult circumstances.

"It would be an unbelievable story line," said majority owner Ahmed Zayat of the circumstances that have led his colt to Louisville. "There are so many different angles and dimensions to it ... I'm just hoping we can be that lucky."

A little more than two weeks ago, on April 14, Bodemeister elicited the most pronounced jaw-dropper on the 2012 Kentucky Derby trail. In just his fourth career start, the son of Empire Maker won the Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park by 91/2 lengths, an effort that may earn him the mantle of favorite in the first leg of the Triple Crown.

Since finishing second in his career debut at Santa Anita on Jan. 16, Bodemeister has repeatedly been chucked into the deep end of the pool only to surface kicking. The Virginia-bred colt sparked classic thoughts when he broke his maiden by 91/4 lengths going a mile at Santa Anita on Feb. 11 and followed that with a second-place finish behind Grade I winner Creative Cause in the Grade II San Felipe Stakes, his first crack at stakes company.

However, between that effort and Bodemeister's Arkansas Derby triumph, having a top Kentucky Derby contender became the least of Baffert's worries. The Hall of Fame trainer suffered a heart attack shortly after traveling to Dubai for the World Cup and underwent surgery to insert stents into two blocked arteries.

Aside from the stress of his profession, Baffert's love of a good porterhouse steak and his push-through-it-all nature nearly took down the seemingly invincible trainer. As impeccably as he looked after his horses, taking care of his own health always ended up being shoved down his never-ending to-do list.

"My wife Jill and I, we had been discussing it," Baffert said. "When it was going on we were sort of in denial. Like, could this really be happening? I thought when they were carting me in there, 'I can't believe everything I've done in my life, here, I'm having a heart attack and it's all going to end in Dubai.'

"After it was over, I felt like, man, I got a second chance here. I've got to redo, change my lifestyle for the best, I've got to take care of myself like I take care of my horses. My doctor says I've got to have a positive outlook on life."

For entirely different reasons, Zayat has come to have a new perspective on the game he has all but mastered in a short time.

In 2010 — the same year his Grade I winner Eskendereya was taken out of the Kentucky Derby with what would be a career-ending leg injury — Zayat was involved in a tumultuous lawsuit with Fifth Third Bank when the institution filed a claim saying Zayat Stables had defaulted on $34 million in loans.

Zayat subsequently filed for bankruptcy protection and was able to reach an agreement with the bank on a repayment plan. His racing operation, which was formed in 2005, never missed a beat.

Last May saw Zayat's Nehro become his fourth Kentucky Derby starter, finishing second to Animal Kingdom. That the longtime entrepreneur has had two horses run second in the Derby, including Pioneer of the Nile in 2009, and could possibly own the horse that gives Baffert his fourth Derby triumph is something he marvels at.

"I tell you something, you pinch yourself that you are so blessed," said Zayat, who sold a minority interest in Bodemeister to Mike Moreno's Southern Equine Stables for an undisclosed amount last week. "I've been so close and so blessed in a very short time and you think you have a horse who can do it this time. I'm trying to contain my excitement and be realistic."

Among the many layers of Bodemeister's tale is that the colt — who was purchased for $260,000 at the 2010 Keeneland September yearling sale — is named for Baffert's youngest son, Bode.

Racing superstition usually frowns on naming horses after family members. So when Baffert first suggested the name to Zayat, he did so thinking there was no way his client would go along with it.

"I was just making a joke, so then a month later the papers come in and my bookkeeper says, 'Look at the name on this horse — Bodemeister — I can't believe he did that,' " Baffert said. "It's usually like a jinx. It's very strange you name a horse you think could run after a family member."

Though he did not race as a juvenile, Bodemeister could put an end to that perceived hex with his exceptional aptitude. In both his maiden win and Arkansas Derby triumph, Bodemeister showed the devastating ability to dictate the pace on the front end but still have another, faster well to draw upon when it came time to quicken in the stretch.

"He was just immature. I wasn't in a big hurry with him," Baffert said of the reason Bodemeister did not start at 2. "I'm glad I did. It made him a better horse. Now, I can see he's getting stronger and stronger as we get along."

The list of horses who have tried and failed to win the Derby with no juvenile form include Hall of Famers Coaltown (1948) and Forego (1973), as well as two-time Horse of the Year Curlin (2007).

Bodemeister has already been called a "freak" because of his Arkansas Derby victory. If the baby-faced colt can overcome an expected hot pace and win the roses Saturday, there may be no proper words for either his talent or the emotions he conjures.

"In a race like this, you're concerned about everything because everything has to go right. But I think this horse can handle anything," Zayat said. "I think this horse can sit, he doesn't have to have the lead, but I'm not going to take him out of his element.

"What makes it special is here is a man (Baffert) who has won all those Derbies in his peak and had a setback regarding his health. And how appropriate that he could do it again with a horse that is named after his son. There's very much romance there."

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