Bob Baffert is happy to be anywhere these days, considering a heart attack flattened him in Dubai last month.
“After it was over, it felt like, ‘Man, I just, I got a second chance here. ... It was just a weird scare,” the Hall of Fame trainer said. “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.”
Life is good right now.
He’s got the likely favorite in the Kentucky Derby with Bodemeister, a talented colt named after his son, Bode, who is named after dad’s ski pal, Bode Miller.
Bodemeister stamped himself as a standout with his 91/2-length win in the Arkansas Derby, the most impressive performance in a season of prep races that have done little to clarify a muddled Derby picture. A full field of 20 horses is expected for the 11/4-mile race, and it will be one of the deepest and most talented when they break from the gate at Churchill Downs on Saturday.
“All 20 horses are stronger than I can remember in years,” said Dr. Kendall Hansen, whose light gray colt, Hansen, carries the family name and will be one of the favorites. “There’s no horse that’s setting the world on fire yet. It’s nice that you’re not running against a Northern Dancer or a Secretariat. There’s a lot of horses that have a chance going into the Derby.”
Injuries that derailed favorites I Want Revenge and Quality Road in 2009; Eskendereya in 2010; and Uncle Mo last year have not been a problem this time around. Rather it’s been inconsistency among the top 3-year-olds that has opened the door for a handful of colts to wear the garland of red roses next in the winner’s circle.
Bodemeister is one of the most talented 3-year-old this year, although he lacks seasoning, never having raced as a 2-year-old. Baffert had him playing catch-up, with the colt making four starts in the run-up to the Derby. The only other Derby candidate to race that much is Prospective.
“I just took my time with him,” Baffert said. “He was just immature. I wasn’t in a big hurry with him, so I’m glad I did. It made him a better horse.”
Baffert spread out Bodemeister’s races, giving the colt plenty of rest between starts. Now, he’ll be asked to win the Derby off a three-week turnaround from his dominant win in Arkansas. Baffert, who has won the Derby three times but not since 2002, also will saddle Liaison.
“He’s getting better with each and every start, so if he runs his same race back that puts him right there,” said Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who will be aboard Bodemeister in the Derby for just the second time. “We all know many things can change awful quick on Derby day.”
Baffert demurs on Bodemeister as the likely favorite, suggesting Union Rags or Hansen could claim such high-profile status. Still, Baffert thrives on coming to the Derby with a real shot and he’s simply grateful to be around at all.
The past four Derby winners had just two prep races as 3-year-olds, including Super Saver in 2010. Among this year’s top contenders, Union Rags was 3-1 as a 2-year-old; Creative Cause was 3-2; and Gemologist was 3-0 and has won both of his starts this year.
“We’ll continue to see winners of the Kentucky Derby come from all different angles with various prep programs. It’s all about everything going just right on that particular day and liking the surface on however it’s playing that day,” said Todd Pletcher, who won his first Derby with Super Saver and trains Gemologist.
“There’s so many variables that I don’t think there’s an exact science to it. We’ve seen all those things change, and a lot of the so-called rules of having to win the Kentucky Derby a certain way have sort of all been shattered in the last 10 years or so.”
The 138th edition of the Derby promises speed in the form of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Hansen and Trinniberg, winner of the Swale and Bay Shore in his last two starts but who has never run farther than seven furlongs.
Hansen led all the way in beating Union Rags in last year’s BC Juvenile. Each of the previous four Juvenile winners never made it to the Derby starting gate, but this year eight Juvenile starters are likely to run. Five of those eight were the top five finishers — Hansen, Union Rags, Creative Cause, Dullahan and Take Charge Indy — and all of them have run impressively this year.
Michael Matz is back at the Derby with Union Rags, six years after he trained Barbaro to victory. Barbaro stunningly broke down in the Preakness, leaving fans crying at the track. His subsequent battle to overcome those injuries won him a huge following that continued even after his death months later.
“He can run close to the pace, he can run off the pace, he can do whatever you ask him to do,” he said of Union Rags. “It all depends on how the race unfolds. His mind is that good that I don’t think it really matters.”
Graham Motion, who trained last year’s Derby winner Animal Kingdom, returns with Went the Day Well. The Vinery Spiral Stakes winner is residing in the same stall that was occupied by Animal Kingdom last May and will be ridden by the same jockey, newly elected Hall of Famer John Velazquez.
“Animal Kingdom was a very sort of green, very laid-back horse this time last year who I would never have imagined he would have been my first Kentucky Derby winner,” Motion said, comparing his current contender. “Developmentally they’re probably in very similar stages, perhaps even Went the Day Well is a little further ahead even.”