BOZICH | American Pharoah puts Bob Baffert on Kentucky Derby's Mt. Rushmore
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – You can put Bob Baffert's name on the Mt. Rushmore of Kentucky Derby trainers now. The photo is official.
Baffert is to the Derby what Chuck Noll is to the Super Bowl, Mike Krzyzewski is to the Final Four and Joe Torre is to the World Series.
An absolute Mt. Rushmore face, with his signature silver hair, always present sunglasses and sly smile.
One of the best. Ever.
Confirmation came late Saturday afternoon in front of a Derby record 170,513 roaring witnesses. It happened in 2:03.02. That's how long it required American Pharoah, the spectacular colt trained by Baffert, to crackle wide on the final turn and win the Kentucky Derby by a length over Firing Line. Baffert also trained Dortmund, who finished third.
No wonder Baffert stood outside the Kentucky Derby winner's circle high-fiving Bode Baffert, his 10-year-old son.
“Bob has an unbelievable canny brilliance of being in tune with his horses,” said Ahmed Zayat, the owner of American Pharoah. “That is something that I've never seen from a lot of other unbelievable trainers in America.”
Make that four Kentucky Derbies for Baffert now. Only three other horsemen have achieved that – D. Wayne Lukas, Derby Dick Thompson and the inimitable Ben Jones.
The first two on that list also have four. Jones has six. Beware Baffert. He's 62. Expect him to be here as a serious threat on May 7, 2016, May 6, 2017, May 5, 2018 and ... Baffert is as much a part of the Derby tapestry as bourbon and outrageous hats.
“Those names are legends,” Baffert said. “To be in that position, I never think about stuff like that.”
What Baffert did think about, endlessly, was getting back in the Derby winner's circle this year. The man won his first Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm. He backed it up in 1998 with Real Quiet. Then he did it again four years later with War Emblem.
But the next dozen years served Baffert a super-sized batch of soggy oats. Eight trips to the Derby with a dozen horses. No victories. Two whacks in the molars when Baffert finished second.
“There's other Derby trainers stuck in traffic right now,” Baffert said. “I know the feeling.”
Baffert swallowed second in 2009 and 2012 with grace. Processing that runner-up malaise would never be as simple this time.
Baffert came to this Derby with the two best horses. The first was the favorite, American Pharoah, winner of his last four prep races by a combined 22 lengths. The second choice was Dortmund, the undefeated winner of the Santa Anita Derby and the other important prep races on the West Coast.
“It was a different pressure because I knew I had the horses to do it with,” Baffert said.
Baffert has always done the Derby with a twist of sunshine. He's the kind of guy who has been spotted balancing the Derby trophy on his head. Baffert has never seen a microphone that he's not willing to embrace.
He compared American Pharoah to Muhammad Ali because of the colt's robust athleticism. Measured at more than 17 hands, Dortmund was the largest horse in the field, which explains why Baffert called him, “George Foreman.”
While Baffert was joking, he was also pacing. He changed the subject when people started talking about his horses the way they hyped Secretariat and Seattle Slew. He got sick at dinner one night in downtown Louisville. It wasn't the food. It was stress.
Baffert wanted to win this Derby for Bode, who had never experienced anything better than finishing second in this race. He wanted to win it for Zayat and his son, Justin, who had finished second twice.
Baffert suffered a near fatal heart attack in Dubai three years ago. He joked that one of the stents in his heart was about to explode when he was certain that one of his horses would draw the number one post position on Wednesday.
Dortmund started in the eight slot in the middle of the track. American Pharoah was in post 18, which had not produced a winner since 1982.
Baffert was fine with that starting spot for American Pharoah, but he was also confused. On Friday the trainer sent a text message to his jockey, Victor Espinoza, telling the rider that he should rush American Pharoah to the front of the field.
On Saturday, Baffert changed his instructions. Did I mention that Baffert was stressed?
“You know what, Victor, you just ride the horse,” Baffert said. “You know your horse better than I do. If he fires you're going to win. If he doesn't fire, he's not going to win.”
American Pharoah fired. American Pharoah won.
He won the way a great horse is supposed to win. Ridden with poise by Espinoza, American Pharoah stalked a modest pace for more than a mile. Just before the quarter pole, the jockey asked his horse to run.
Guiding him nearly five horses wide to avoid trouble, American Pharoah overtook Dortmund and then Firing Line before surging away to win by a solid length. He won the Derby the long wide, going wide all the way around the track.
American Pharoah looked like a horse who could win another Triple Crown race. Or two.
In two weeks, the horse will run in the Preakness, a race that Baffert has won every time that he has won the Derby. Silver Charm. Real Quiet. War Emblem. They all delivered in Baltimore.
“We have two weeks to watch the replay about a thousand times and just enjoy it,” Baffert said.
The view from the Kentucky Derby's Mt. Rushmore ensures that.
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