How hard is it to win the Kentucky Derby? Bob Baffert knows, and he's done it three times. Yet for the past 12 years, the Hall of Fame trainer is 0-for-12 on the first Saturday in May, including runners-up Pioneerof the Nile (2009) and Bodemeister (2012).
Baffert has saddled the favorite five times, including an entry in 1999. If the Derby had been run Saturday, he would have had the first two betting choices.
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Dortmund (5-for-5) and 2014 2-year-old champion American Pharoah (3-for-4) are first and second in most polls, giving new meaning to embarrassment of riches. They don't look alike -- Dortmund is a huge chestnut; American Pharoah is a compact bay -- but have similar running styles. Each likes being on or near the pace, although last year Dortmund rallied from sixth and fifth in his first two starts.
Baffert recently compared his young stars.
"They're really two different types of horses, although they're both quick and light on their feet,'' he said. "I've seen Dortmund stumble and break a little awkward but he can get up in the next jump and be right there. Pharoah has a very efficient, kind of effortless stride. He's fast, but he's not a speed-crazy type."
Dortmund, sired by 2008 Derby-Preakness winner Big Brown, is more battle-tested, having won two stretch duels with Firing Line, California's third-best 3-year-old. Dortmund's last three wins have been by a head, a head and 1 1/4 lengths. American Pharoah hasn't been challenged in three races since running fifth in his debut.
"The reason they find themselves on the lead is because they do it effortlessly,'' Baffert said. "I've never seen them rank or run off. I don't know what would happen if there was some ridiculous speed out there.''
On Derby Day, there usually is, so perhaps Baffert will try taking them just off the pace in their final preps -- Dortmund (Saturday, Santa Anita Derby), American Pharoah (April 11, Arkansas Derby). The crowded, chaotic Run for the Roses is no place to try to teach a new trick to a horse, no matter how talented.
The other buzz horse, Carpe Diem, is trained by Todd Pletcher, whose only Derby victory came in 2010 with Super Saver. Carpe Diem is bound for the April 11 Blue Grass at Keeneland, where he dominated the Breeders' Futurity last fall. He's versatile, bred for distance, and his worst finish in four races was a distant second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Pletcher nominated 36 horses to the Triple Crown, with Far From Over and Daredevil likely for Saturday's Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. His cavalry troop got bigger and stronger Saturday. Materiality (3-for-3, $5.60) turned back even-money Upstart in the Grade I Florida Derby a half-hour after Pletcher's Stanford ran a close second to International Star ($6.60) in the Grade II Louisiana Derby.
In Dubai, another world-class trainer, South African Mike de Kock, won the UAE Derby at Meydan with Mubtaahij, who will add foreign intrigue to Derby 141. "We'll be there,'' de Kock said.