LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Bob Baffert couldn't have suffered more 19 years ago on his first trip to the Kentucky Derby. When Grindstone caught his gelding Cavonnier in the final stride, the platinum-haired trainer fell short by a nose.
One of the most brutal beats in Derby history tormented Baffert, who began to obsess over the race everyone wants to win most. He figured it out in a hurry, taking the next two with Silver Charm and Real Quiet, then getting his third in 2002 with War Emblem.
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Then the Derby gods turned against Baffert, denying him with 12 losers. Saturday, American Pharoah and Dortmund gave him the best 1-2 punch any trainer has had in many years. It was billed as his race to lose, with American Pharoah touted as racing's Next Big Thing.
That made Baffert edgy. "All week long, this super horse, what are we going to see? I read that, and I don't really like that. When everybody you see says, 'Oh, Bob, you can't lose,' I hate that. I don't want to hear that."
The powerful bay colt lived up to the hype, winning by a length over Firing Line for jockey Victor Espinoza after the first stretch battle of his career. Dortmund was third. Relief mingled with joy as Baffert tried to process the overwhelming experience.
"I don't know if I can go another 12 years like this," he said. "We got the Derby. We got the most important one out of the way. I'm just feeling so grateful that the Zayat family, Ahmed and Justin, trusted me with this horse."
Baffert's fourth Derby trophy tied his friend and rival, 79-year-old D. Wayne Lukas, and Herbert "Derby Dick" Thompson for second behind the immortal Ben Jones. Plain Ben trained Triple Crown winners Whirlaway (1941) and Citation (1948), and the Missouri farm boy had such a touch with thoroughbreds that people said he was half horse.
"Those names are legends, and to be in this position, I never think about stuff like that," Baffert said. "This Derby is for the Zayats, who have suffered so much with all these seconds with Pioneerof the Nile and Nehro and Bodemeister."
And if Cavonnier's nose had been a little longer, Baffert would be only one behind Jones. At 62, he has a decent shot at the record.
"I want results, and Bob is the best trainer in America," Ahmed Zayat said. "Bob certainly has earned his trust with us. So our relationship is fun. It's evolved and has become really strong."
Baffert was denied a Triple Crown at Belmont Park three times, with Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem. Will American Pharoah be the next to make a run at history for him? He'll be an overwhelming favorite May 16 at Pimlico.
"Coming into the Preakness, he doesn't need much, he's fit," Baffert said. "My horses are very fit. So a race like this doesn't knock them back at all, because they're used to it."
Here we go again.