52° Good Morning
52° Good Morning

Bob Baffert brings knockout 1-2 punch of American Pharoah and Dortmund to the Kentucky Derby

Under the watch of Hall of Fame trainer

Under the watch of Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, right, Kentucky Derby hopeful Dortmund is led off the van by assistant trainer Jim Barnes after a flight from California to Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., Sunday, April 26, 2015. Credit: AP / Garry Jones

Even people who watch only three races a year know Bob Baffert. He's won every marquee event you can name and trained more champions than you can remember. His list of stakes winners can give you eye strain, and his trophy case shines with nine from the classics -- Kentucky Derby (three), Preakness (a record-tying five) and a Belmont Stakes.

He took two legs of the Triple Crown four times from 1997-2002 and in 2009 was a first-ballot Hall of Famer. So you would think that at 62, the platinum-haired wisecracker no longer could surpass himself at "Can you top this?" Against all odds, he has.

It's been 67 years since a trainer had two Derby colts that looked as strong as American Pharoah and Dortmund. In 1948, Ben Jones ran 1-2 with Citation and Coaltown, and many will be betting the Baffert-Baffert exacta Saturday. "I can't believe I have two horses like this the same year," Baffert said. "I just feel so fortunate."

It's unheard of for a 6-for-6 horse with four stakes victories to be overshadowed by another in the same barn, but that's Dortmund's situation. American Pharoah is 4-for-4 by a combined 22 1/4 lengths after losing his debut last summer. His 8-length Arkansas Derby blowout established him as the horse to beat, and his 5-furlong workout in a sizzling 582/5 seconds Sunday at Churchill Downs ensured he'll be the favorite, with Dortmund the second choice.

"American Pharoah looks great," Baffert said. "He's right where we want him to be."

The work dazzled longtime clocker Gary Young. "I have been doing this for 35 years," he said, "and he might be the best horse I've ever seen. He stays in the air like Michael Jordan in his rookie year. You get the feeling there's not one gear left, but he might have two, three or four gears."

Baffert's stars don't look or run alike. Dortmund, a chestnut, is taller and heavier than American Pharoah, a long-bodied, powerful bay. Dortmund is like Rob Gronkowski, a big tight end who takes hits and keeps going. Think of American Pharoah as a young Randy Moss, a wide receiver gliding like a cheetah to the end zone.

"Dortmund is really long and really light on his feet," Baffert said. "He's probably more battle-tested. He's been in a couple fights. American Pharoah, he's a different type of horse. He's fast, but he cruises effortlessly. He hasn't been in a dogfight, so we don't know how he's going to respond."

American Pharoah has enjoyed four consecutive perfect trips because he has the talent to create them for himself. He sat second before blowing open the Arkansas Derby when Victor Espinoza asked him to accelerate. If he gets a similar scenario Saturday, he could be long gone.

Baffert is hopeful but isn't counting on racing luck, because despite his spectacular success, he's endured plenty of anguish. In 1996, his first Derby runner, Cavonnier, lost by a nose. A year later, Touch Gold's Belmont rally denied Silver Charm the Triple Crown. The next spring, Baffert was the fall guy in the most brutal beat in racing history, when immortality eluded Real Quiet by a nose at Belmont Park. In 2002, front-runner War Emblem stumbled at the start of the Belmont, torching his bid for a sweep.

Oddly, in hindsight, Point Given's Derby flop may have hurt most. The future Hall of Famer chased hot fractions and faded to fifth before dominating the Preakness and Belmont. Those were bittersweet triumphs for a trainer who figured the Triple Crown should have been his.

"The Derby pace was ridiculous, it was just bad luck and we didn't get it done," Baffert said. "The Preakness and Belmont were like nothing to Point Given, so it was pretty disappointing."

Nowhere does Murphy's Law do its dirty work better than at the racetrack, which is why Baffert is wary.

"I know the disappointment, so I don't dare get too far ahead of myself," he said. "The owners, they can dream in Technicolor. I dream in black and white and don't take anything for granted. Just go in there and stick to your game plan and hope it happens."

New York Sports