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Why Bob Baffert is again seeking Kentucky Derby success with a trip through Arkansas

Solomini will try to use Saturday’s Arkansas Derby as a springboard into the Kentucky Derby.
Solomini will try to use Saturday’s Arkansas Derby as a springboard into the Kentucky Derby. Coady Photography

Trainer Bob Baffert and the Zayat family have been down this road before. For their Kentucky Derby-bound horses, a trip through Hot Springs, Ark., has become a favorite route from Los Angeles to Louisville.

It worked for Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, who used the Arkansas Derby as a steppingstone to greatness. Now, they're gambling that they'll have more success there Saturday as Solomini tries to squeeze into the 2018 Kentucky Derby field.

"Solomini is not the kind of horse that wows you in the morning," said Justin Zayat, who manages the family's racing stable. "But he's maturing every day and right now he's at his absolute peak and the best of his career."

The last berths for America's most famous race come down to two final preps this weekend: The $1 million Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and the $200,000 Lexington Stakes at Keeneland in Kentucky.

Under the Derby's point system, the Arkansas Derby is worth 170 points with 100 – and a guaranteed Kentucky Derby berth – to the winner. The Lexington offers 34 points, with 20 to its winner. Only the top four finishers in either race earn points. Candidates likely will need 40 or more points to get into the Kentucky Derby, which is limited to 20 starters.

On the points bubble with 34, Solomini currently ranks 19th on the Derby leaderboard and is playing catch-up. In his only start of 2018, Solomini finished a troubled second to Magnum Moon in the Rebel Stakes. Magnum Moon and Tampa Bay Derby winner Quip also will be in the Arkansas Derby's nine-horse field.

A son of Curlin out of a Storm Cat mare, Solomini always has been highly regarded. Besides the Zayats, he's co-owned by famed European breeders Susan Magnier, Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith, who bought into the horse after his 2-year-old campaign.

Solomini has been a puzzle for Hall of Fame trainer Baffert, who has won the Kentucky Derby four times.

"He’s always been a challenge because he is a very lazy horse," said Baffert, noting that Solomini tends to goof off during morning workouts. "He’s sort of a grinder type, but he’s got a huge heart and he shows up (in races). The talent is there."

Said Zayat, "I think Bob likes the challenge. ... (Solomini) has some weird idiosyncrasies, but he has been working well every single week and Bob is happy. Bob wouldn’t put him on a plane and ship him if he didn’t think (he's) going to run a big race."

Baffert already has one 2018 Kentucky Derby qualifier: Santa Anita Derby winner Justify.

Besides American Pharoah in 2015, Baffert and the Zayats also won the Arkansas Derby in 2012 with Bodemeister, who finished second behind I'll Have Another in both the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

Solomini, second in the 2017 Breeders' Cup Juvenile, is a sentimental favorite for the Zayat family.

"He holds a special place in our hearts because he's actually named after my sister’s first son, who's my parent’s first grandchild, named Solomon," Justin Zayat explained. "My sister (Ashley) always said to me, 'When I have a kid, you better name a good horse after my son.' So, I had the pressure. I chose this colt and we called him Solomini, like mini Solomon, and he's turning out (well), thank God."