Of Derbys and Favorites

California trainer Bob Baffert appears to have the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) favorite in his barn for the third time since 2000.

The remarkably easy eight-length win April 11 by American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby (gr. I) gave the son of Pioneerof the Nile his fourth consecutive graded stakes victory since last September. His margins of victory also have been commanding: 43⁄4 lengths in the Del Mar Futurity (gr. I), 31⁄4 lengths in the FrontRunner Stakes (gr. I), and 61⁄4 lengths in the Rebel Stakes (gr. II). Zayat Stables’ homebred puts the competition away so effortlessly it is hard to imagine American Pharoah not being the betting public’s choice come May 2.

Baffert already has three Kentucky Derby titles to his credit—Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002, but none of these were the favorite at post time. Silver Charm came the closest as the second choice to Captain Bodgit.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s record with favorites since 2000 has been both humbling and frustrating, so it is understandable if he maintained a reserved tone in the afterglow of such a dominant performance that was the Arkansas Derby.

“He needs to keep moving forward, and I don’t need to get ahead of myself,” Baffert said following the victory.

Baffert knows American Pharoah is an exceptional athlete and has recognized his extraordinary ability since he first arrived in his barn. But he also knows what a strange beast the Kentucky Derby can be.

In 2001 Baffert’s Derby favorite was Point Given, a son of 1995 Derby winner Thunder Gulch and a homebred for Ahmed Salman’s The Thoroughbred Corp. As a sophomore, the towering chestnut colt had lost none of the luster from a strong juvenile campaign. At 2 he’d won two graded stakes, including the Hollywood Futurity (gr. I) and finished a close second in two other grade I stakes—a nose behind Macho Uno in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and 13⁄4 lengths behind A P Valentine in the Champagne Stakes. At 3 he came into the Derby in top form and with all the right credentials. He had shown grade I ability at 2, was well-seasoned with eight career starts, and was shipping to Churchill Downs off consecutive victories in the San Felipe Stakes (gr. II) and the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I).

In the Derby, however, Point Given got caught a bit wide in the first turn and tracked too close to a blistering pace of :22.25, :44.86, and 1:09.25. When it came time for the real running, the colt lacked the required late kick and finished fifth.

In 2010 Baffert’s trouble with 2-year-old male champion Lookin At Lucky began at the Derby post draw where the son of Smart Strike got the rail position, a post that has been the kiss of death in the era of 20-horse Derby fields. The last Derby winner to leave from post 1 was Ferdinand in 1986 against a field of 15 challengers.

In his previous races Lookin At Lucky, owned by partners Mike Pegram, Karl Watson, and Paul Weitman, had preferred stalking the pace. In the Derby jockey Garrett Gomez had to take back to the rear of the cavalry charge and then swerve in and out of traffic after a mile to find room to run. The colt finished sixth.

Both Point Given and Lookin At Lucky would bounce back to redeem themselves with victories in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). Point Given would also take the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), the Haskell Invitational Handicap (gr. I), and the Travers Stakes (gr. I). Lookin At Lucky would also win the Izod Haskell and the Indiana Derby (gr. II). Both would also earn 3-year-old male champion honors.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

For now we must wait and watch the story unfold, as American Pharoah takes on a handful of colts that have dominated the prep calendar—International Star, Carpe Diem, and the Baffert-trained Dortmund—along with others that seem to be peaking at the right time, such as Materiality and Frosted.

Favoritism itself is not an ill omen. Six post-time favorites have won the Derby since 2000, with two coming back-to-back with Orb in 2013 and last year with California Chrome.

It has been said good things come in threes. Maybe Baffert’s third favorite of the decade will be charmed.

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