Trainer Bob Baffert is in a familiar zone and he’s trying not to whiff.
Baffert, the nation’s most recognizable horse trainer and a Hall of Famer, has the two favorites for Saturday’s $2 million Kentucky Derby. He’s been in this situation once before, with Point Given and Congaree in 2001, and lost.
Undefeated Dortmund and defending juvenile champion American Pharaoh have combined to win 10 consecutive races, thanks to Baffert’s expert scheduling. Although both are based in California, his stars have not raced against each other.
That always was Baffert’s plan. Both are good enough to give Baffert his fourth Derby trophy. But he knows nothing is certain, especially in this race.
“I have two really good horses here this year, but I have been here and gotten beat with good horses,” Baffert said this week. “Everyone has a chance, so you never take it for granted.”
Baffert, 62, won the Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002). But overall, he’s 3 for 24 with three seconds and two thirds. He’s lost with favorites Cavonnier (1996), General Challenge (1999), Point Given (2001) and Lookin at Lucky (2010).
Pioneerof the Nile, American Pharaoh’s father, finished second for Baffert in 2009 behind 50-1 long shot Mine That Bird. In 2012, Baffert’s Bodemeister, named for his son Bode, finished second to I’ll Have Another, leaving the trainer in tears.
“It’s been so long I’ve forgotten (how it feels to win),” Baffert joked. “That’s the past right there. (That last win) was so long ago, it doesn’t matter.”
With his current duo, Baffert won two of the final four major Derby prep races. Dortmund easily won the Santa Anita Derby, and American Pharaoh splashed home on a sloppy track to win the Arkansas Derby by eight lengths.
His two horses could not be more different.
Dortmund, unbeaten in six races, is a gigantic chestnut who looks like his dad, 2008 Derby winner Big Brown. Still growing, Dortmund is more than 17 hands tall and weighs 1,280 pounds. He’s a handful for jockey Martin Garcia.
As an awkward youngster, Dortmund earned the nickname “Dorky.” Baffert compares him to Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky.
“This guy is lanky. He’s built sort of like a greyhound,” Baffert said. “(If he played basketball), he’s the center. He can dunk.”
Kaleem Shah, an Indian-born entrepreneur, bought Dortmund as a yearling for $140,000. Fond of German soccer clubs, Shah also owns 2014 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Bayern. Shah said he’s OK with both favorites in the same barn.
“I know Bob will do right by both horses,” Shah said. “Whoever is the fastest will win.”
When he first arrived at Baffert’s Santa Anita barn, American Pharaoh was dubbed “Idiot,” for repeatedly acting stupid. His nickname could have been “Stubby.” When the colt made his summer debut at Del Mar, his tail looked as if it was bobbed.
But American Pharaoh has matured into a talented racehorse.
“He’s a very exciting horse,” Baffert said. “When he runs, he shows a (different) dimension. He surprises me every time that I run him.”
American Pharaoh belongs to his breeder, Egyptian-born businessman Ahmed Zayat, who also owns El Kabeir and Mr. Z in this year’s Derby field.
“(Pharaoh) is the best horse I’ve ever owned,” said Zayat, whose horses have finished second in the Derby three times.
With four consecutive victories, American Pharaoh has learned to ration his speed. Jockey Victor Espinoza, who guided California Chrome to victory in the 2014 Derby, rides American Pharaoh.
“He’s where we want him to be,” Baffert said. “He hasn’t regressed.”
In the countdown to Derby Day, both horses looked and felt great, he added, while declining to pick his favorite.
“My horses are doing really well,” Baffert said. “It’s a matter of we need some racing luck.”
Call The Bee’s Debbie Arrington, (916) 321-1075. Follow her on Twitter @debarrington.
Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.
When: Saturday, 3:24 p.m. post (approximate)
TV: 1 p.m., Ch. 3
Local angle: Cal Expo will show live simulcasting of the Derby card. Doors open at 7 a.m.; general admission is $4. Cal Expo also has a party package (two buffets, program, reserved seat) for $38; call (916) 263-3279 for reservations.
1. Ocho Ocho Ocho
2. Carpe Diem
5. Danzig Moon
Mike de Kock
7. El Kabeir
10. Firing Line
12. International Star
14. Keen Ice
16. War Story
17. Mr. Z
D. Wayne Lukas
18. American Pharoah
Rick Violette Jr.
20. Far Right
Age: 3-year-olds. Weight: 126 pounds. Distance: 11/4 miles. Purse: $2,203,800 if 20 start. First place: $1,443,800. Second place: $400,000. Third place: $200,000. Fourth place: $100,000. Fifth place: $60,000.