by Trevor Whenham - 04/19/2006
The world is a better place when Bob Baffert is a contender at the Kentucky Derby. The silver-haired trainer is one of the most colorful characters in all of sports, never mind horse racing. He has made the Derby interesting to watch since he showed up in 1996 and he has been behind some of the great racing stories of the last ten years.
It was sad to see Baffert as a non-factor last year when his Sort It Out finished 17th, which is about where he deserved to finish. Some people were writing his eulogy then, saying the sport had passed him by. He has unquestionably proven that that was premature. If they stay healthy, Baffert will roll into Louisville in two and a half weeks with three strong contenders for the roses.
Baffert's first Derby was also the first one I attended. He almost pulled it off. His Cavonnier missed out by the tiniest of margins to Grindstone. The relatively unknown former quarter horse trainer from Arizona was disappointed then, but he rewrote Derby history over the next six years. Silver Charm won the first two legs of the Triple Crown in 1997 in epic battles with Free House and Captain Bodgit. He lost the Belmont, but went on to become one of the most successful horses in racing history. The next year Baffert once more ran us through an emotional rollercoaster. Real Quiet, a horse so narrow that his success seemed impossible, again won the first two before losing narrowly in the Belmont.
His three horses disappointed despite high hopes in 1999 and Captain Steve underachieved in 2000. It was when Baffert brought Point Given to Kentucky in 2001 that it looked like history would be rewritten. This horse was as impressive as an animal can be. Something cruel happened in the Derby when Point Given finished fifth. There was no good explanation for the off race. To add insult to injury, Point Given manhandled the field in the Preakness and Belmont. For the third time in five years, Baffert had come tantalizingly close to the Triple Crown, but hadn't done it.
He apparently hadn't had enough of the near misses, because he did it again in 2002. War Emblem was only in the Baffert stables for three weeks before the Derby, but he went wire-to-wire and made the field look silly. As we were used to by that point, he also won the Preakness before losing the Belmont.
From there it went badly. He finished 14th in 2003, didn't have a runner in 2004 and was 17th last year. The disappointing streak should end this year.
Point Determined reeks of fate. As the name would make you guess, his sire is Point Given. Triple Crown wins by Baffert with father and son in five years would almost be too good. It gets even better. Point Determined is owned by the Bob and Beverly Lewis Trust. Bob Lewis died earlier this year, but he and his wife were the owners of Silver Charm. A Derby win would be feel good stories stacked on top of each other. He comes into the race off of a second in the Santa Anita Derby. The winner of that race, though, was Brother Derek and he is a very well regarded horse. That means Point Determined comes to the Derby in good shape to run well, but he will offer enough of a price to make him attractive. He's 12/1 in futures betting at Bodog.
On the same day that Point Determined was running at Santa Anita, Bob and John won the Wood Memorial. He isn't a fancy horse, but his style and development reminds Baffert of Real Quiet. The Bob in Bob and John is Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans. The same guy could draft Reggie Bush and win the Derby within a week. Tough life. McNair tried to sell the horse twice. The first time the deal fell through when Bob and John kicked a hole in his stall and hurt his foot. The second time he didn't reach his reserve price at auction. Every person who was at that sale will kick themselves if they missed out and the horse wins it all. He comes to the Derby in good form and he will handle the distance without a problem. He's 8/1 at Bodog. That means we have two Baffert horses to watch. So far.
It's quite possible that Baffert's best horse is also the most unlikely one. Baffert had a horse claimed in a $62,500 claiming race at Santa Anita in January. The winner of that race was Sinister Minister. Baffert saw something he liked, so he bought the horse a couple of days later. Baffert bumped him up in class for the California Derby on March 11. It was a disaster. Sinister Minister was leading at the top of the stretch, but then he lost his mind. He started jumping shadows and bumped into the rail several times. At one point it looked like he was going to try to jump the rail. He ended up finishing second.
After that bizarre race, no one was paying any attention to the horse heading into the Blue Grass Stakes last weekend. Baffert must have thought he smelled or something, because the press wasn't seeking him out before the race started. He was probably used to that after the last several Derbys, but that doesn't mean he liked it. Sinister Minister took the lead almost out of the gate. He kept opening up a margin. Everyone waited for the rest of the strong field to close the gap. They never did. The horse pulled further and further away, ended up 12 ¾ lengths ahead in a completely dominating performance. Even Baffert was pleasantly surprised. "We got very lucky. Sometimes you're the bug and sometimes you're the windshield. It all worked out."
If Sinister Minister can get to the lead and set the pace in the Derby, he could go from mid-level claimer to Triple Crown winner in four months. Now that would be a story. Of course, it seems unlikely, but so has everything up to this point for the horse. And so have most of Baffert's previous victories. Sinister Minister's not even listed on Bodog. He's part of the 6/1 field.
Bob Baffert won't have the favorite in the Derby. There are too many good horses ahead of him - Lawyer Ron, Brother Derek and Barbaro. That doesn't matter, though. He'll be there and he'll have three talented runners. He's shown that he knows how to get a horse to peak at the right time. He has a plodder with heart in Bob and John, like Real Quiet. He has a horse with his father's championship blood pumping through him. He has an outsider with speed to burn, like War Emblem. Baffert will bring the horses and the fun to Louisville. He'll be looking to take the roses with him when he leaves.
It's hard to know how Baffert is feeling going into the Derby. He'll talk a lot, but it's hard to tell what is true and what is just him having fun. We know that his wife, Julie, is nervous, though. Nervous and superstitious. Kent Desormeaux was the winning jockey on Real Quiet and on Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000. Both times he wore yellow and red silks. This time around Desormeaux is riding Sweetnorthernsaint. His silks? Red and yellow.