That could change this year for the silver-haired quipster as he heads into the 135th “Run for the Roses.” His Pioneerof the Nile will be one of the favorites for the Grade I, $2-million classic at Churchill Downs on May 2. A fourth victory in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands would tie Baffert with H.J. “Dick” Thompson and Baffert contemporary D. Wayne Lukas for second-place among Derby-winning trainers.
The Baffert and Lukas prospects are only two of the expected maximum field of 20 for the Derby. And while Pioneerof the Nile, winner of four straight graded stakes, including the Grade I Santa Anita Derby, is considered one of the favorites, he won’t be alone at the top. West Coast cohort I Want Revenge, trained by Jeff Mullins, could be the favorite off his two brilliant wins in Aqueduct’s Gotham Stakes and Wood Memorial.
Also expected to vie for favoritism are Friesan Fire, who swept the Fair Grounds’ Derby preps, including the Louisiana Derby; Fountain of Youth and Florida Derby winner Quality Road, and the long-on-talent but short-on-experience Florida Derby runner-up Dunkirk.
All of that makes for a wide open Derby, just the kind the bettors love.
While the California horses were proving themselves on either coast, Papa Clem made some noise in the Midwest by winning the Arkansas Derby, thus giving the Left Coast entourage, which also includes graded stakes winner Chocolate Candy, reason to take pride in their equine athletes. Those two could be major players at a solid price.
The pair from Dubai, Regal Ransom and Desert Party, seem to give Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum his best opportunity yet to bring the solid gold Kentucky Derby trophy to his homeland on the Persian Gulf.
WinStar Farm will send out a trio of prospects for the Derby – Advice, Hold Me Back and Mr. Hot Stuff. The latter is a full brother to last year’s WinStar hope Colonel John, who was the second choice in the Derby betting but finished sixth to Big Brown. Advice and Hold Me Back captured graded stakes during the pre-Derby campaign while Mr. Hot Stuff was third in the Santa Anita Derby in his final race before the Derby.
Musket Man is two for two in Derbys so far this year, coming home first in the Tampa Bay Derby and then the Illinois Derby. Whether the third time will be charming or something less than that remains to be seen. Win Willy is another colt that picked up graded money along the Arkansas trail, with a win in the Rebel Stakes and fourth-place in the Arkansas Derby.
West Side Bernie made his biggest noise as a 2-year-old with his victory in the Grade III Kentucky Cup Juvenile before finishing sixth in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Even so, his resume shows six straight shots in graded-stakes company, with four solid in-the-money finishes.
General Quarters and Square Eddie could be the feel-good stories of those figuring to get into the starting gate. The former is from the one-horse stable of owner-trainer Thomas R. McCarthy, a retired educator and administrator in the Louisville school system. General Quarters, an established dirt runner, punched his Derby ticket by winning the Grade I Blue Grass Stakes on Keeneland’s synthetic Polytrack surface.
Square Eddie, on the other hand, showed he belonged in this class as a 2-year-old but then appeared off the Triple Crown trail after a shin injury developed following a second-place finish in Santa Anita’s San Rafael Stakes in January. However, the runner-up in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile began to heal amazingly quickly and visions of the Kentucky Derby began dancing in the head of trainer Doug O’Neill. A third-place finish in Keeneland’s Coolmore Lexington Stakes, in which the son of Smart Strike showed a remarkable turn of foot to get to the lead, put him in the Derby conversation.
Two sons of 2004 Belmont Stakes victor Birdstone, which make them grandsons of 1996 Derby winner Grindstone, will try to emulate their grandsire. Summer Bird comes into the Derby with only three lifetime starts and only a maiden victory on his record, while Mine That Bird was Canada’s 2-year-old male champion in 2008 but is winless in his three most recent starts, two this year and the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, in which he was last of 12.
Sitting on the bubble and needing a defection from the top 20 to reach the gate are Join in the Dance and Take the Points, who have combined for three victories in 14 career starts, none in stakes races.
On the training side of the equation – aside from the already mentioned Baffert-Lukas angle – Todd Pletcher trains two horses that qualify money-wise for the Derby and the two that are on the outside looking in. Pletcher will break a tie with Nick Zito for third most starters, as both have 21 now and two-time Derby winner Zito will not be represented this year.
Michael Tabor, a partner with Mrs. John Magnier and Derrick Smith in Dunkirk, will be seeking his second Derby victory, as will IEAH Stables. Tabor went to the winner’s circle with Thunder Gulch in 1995 and IEAH owned last year’s winner Big Brown.
Five jockeys who have mounts in this race have crossed the finish line first in the “Run for the Roses” previously. Kent Desormeaux leads the pack with wins on Real Quiet in 1998, Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000 and Big Brown. Stewart Elliott (Smarty Jones, 2004), Mike Smith (Giacomo, 2005), Edgar Prado (Barbaro, 2006) and Calvin Borel (Street Sense, 2007) are the others.