BALTIMORE — Each grew up in the Southwest with a father who was involved with quarter horses. Each studied animal science at the University of Arizona. Each has a strong connection with D. Wayne Lukas, one of the most influential trainers in thoroughbred history.
Arizona native Bob Baffert, 63, and Texan Todd Pletcher, 47, are the undisputed rulers of American racing, and their accomplishments fill pages in media guides. Baffert’s 12 Triple Crown wins — four Kentucky Derbys, six Preaknesses, two Belmont Stakes — are two behind Lukas’ record. Pletcher owns seven Eclipse Awards as leading trainer, three more than Baffert, and holds the all-time money record.
Pletcher worked 6½ years as Lukas’ assistant before going out on his own in 1995. He’s a lock for the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible in five years. Lukas, who calls Pletcher “my adopted son,” presented Baffert at his Hall induction in 2009.
Oddly, Baffert and Pletcher never have had a real rivalry, partly because Baffert is based in Southern California and Pletcher’s main tracks are Belmont Park, Saratoga and Gulfstream. That hasn’t changed during this spring’s 3-year-old classics, in which both have been relegated to bit players. After seizing the Triple Crown last year with American Pharoah, Baffert finished 10th in the Derby two weeks ago with long shot Mor Spirit. Pletcher also came up empty with long shots Destin (sixth) and Outwork (14th).
Rarely do you get a big price on Baffert or Pletcher, but Saturday’s Preakness Stakes is an exception. Pletcher’s Stradivari is 8-1 in the morning line behind Derby winner Nyquist, the 3-5 favorite, and Baffert’s Collected is 10-1. If you think you’re getting great value on either colt, reconsider.
You don’t have to read between the lines to figure out that Baffert and Pletcher each is “taking a shot” with a front-runner in a race loaded with speed. Both are making a quantum leap in class, with Stradivari appearing to have more upside. They’ve never faced heavyweights like Nyquist and Exaggerator and probably will get knocked out.
Stradivari, 2-for-3 lifetime, makes his stakes debut after dominating his last two races by a combined 25¾ lengths. Pletcher’s take: “We think he’s a very good horse who deserves a chance, but it’s not like I found a cozy little allowance race. It’s a classic race, running against an undefeated 2-year-old champion. This is not a cupcake spot by any means.”
Baffert called Collected (4-for-6) “fast and consistent. He’s won on turf and dirt, and in his only bad race he got off slowly.” He went wire-to-wire in the Sunland Park Derby in New Mexico, then coasted by four lengths April 16 in Keeneland’s Grade III Lexington. Next stop: Baltimore.
“We thought if he ran well there, maybe we’ll take a shot at the Preakness,’’ Baffert said Thursday at Pimlico’s traditional Alibi Breakfast. “The owners [Speedway Stable LLC] wanted to go on the road.’’ Then Baffert let his guard down. “Why am I here?” he said, smiling. “I came to hang out with all you guys.”
Baffert felt certain of victory in the Preakness with American Pharoah, who glided effortlessly by seven lengths over a pond-like track. Before the race, a sheet of windblown rain spattered Baffert and his 10-year-old son. “Bode said to me, ‘Dad, look at the rain. How are we going to get to the winner’s circle?’ ’’ he said.
“His mother, Jill, said, ‘Bode, we don’t talk about things like that. We don’t want to jinx ourselves.’
“While she was saying that, I was looking at the rain and thinking I was just about to say the same thing he did.’’