LOUISVILLE — Nobody can get a horse to peak on Derby Day better than Bob Baffert can. If his star Mastery hadn’t suffered a serious ankle injury seconds after dominating a stakes race in March at Santa Anita, the 64-year-old Hall of Famer probably would have been favored to win his fifth Derby on Saturday.
“It’s tough to swallow that pill, but you have to,” Baffert said Friday. “You just have to accept that you’re going to have bad luck. You’re a trainer, and you’re going to take a lot of lumps.
“What happened to Mastery shows you how brutal this business can be. One minute you win and you think wow, this is the horse we always thought he was. Twenty seconds later, he’s hurt. I thought he was the kind of horse who would be a Derby, Preakness, Belmont type. He had brilliance. Unfortunately, those things happen.”
So instead of being a major player in the Derby again, Baffert planned to watch it from his couch at home in Southern California. He flew back with his wife, Jill, and their son, Bode, after Abel Tasman gave him the best possible consolation prize, an upset win in Friday’s 3-year-old fillies’ Derby, the Kentucky Oaks, at Churchill Downs.
Baffert was asked about how it feels to deal with racing’s glorious ups and its abysmal downs.
“Well, it’s crazy,” he said. “That’s why I have white hair.”
Baffert is a savvy handicapper but, like many others, he had trouble sizing up Saturday’s field.
“It’s like this is the ‘I don’t know’ Derby,” he said after the Oaks. “I’ve been watching them train. When they came by, my wife would say, ‘Which one do you like?’ I said, ‘When they come by, they all look good.’
“There’s been a lot of parity. There hasn’t been a horse separating himself from the pack yet. And the Kentucky Derby will usually do that.”
The name game
How do thoroughbreds get their names? Often it’s a clever combination of those of its sire and mare. Claiborne Farm, the world’s most influential breeder in the 20th century, also is a champion at producing “most euphonious appellations,” to quote comedian W.C. Fields. Departing’s sire was War Front and his mother was Leave. The mare Preach produced a son named Pulpit.
None of this year’s Derby runners have names that clever, but they’re still interesting. The highlights:
Fast and Accurate advertises the diagnostic skills of his owner, Dr. Kendall Hansen, a specialist in pain management.
Patch’s left eye was removed because of a serious infection, and he wore a patch before the surgery. IRAP is an acronym for Interluekin-1 Receptor Antagonist Therapy, which treats joint disease in young horses.
Battle of Midway salutes the U.S. Navy for an important victory in the Pacific during World War II. Girvin and McCraken are named for small towns in Texas and Kentucky, respectively. McCraken, like 2015 Triple Crown champion American Pharoah, is misspelled. A ‘c’ was lost along the way.
Classic Empire’s sire is Pioneerof the Nile and his dam is Sambuca Classica. State of Honor’s father is To Honor and Serve and State Cup is his mother. Practical Joke is by Into Mischief out of the mare Halo Humor.
Manhasset residents Anthony and MaryEllen Bonomo are part of the group that owns Always Dreaming. Anthony Bonomo, former chairman of the New York Racing Association’s board of directors, grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn. He formed Brooklyn Boyz Stables when he bought two horses in 2005.
MaryEllen runs her own MeB Stable and names most of the couple’s horses, including Always Dreaming. “We started by naming them after the streets we grew up on in Brooklyn,” Anthony Bonomo said. “Then we ran out of streets.”
As for Always Dreaming, a perfect name for a Derby horse, he said, “If you can’t dream, you can’t be in this sport.”
Minutes before Wednesday’s Derby draw, Churchill Downs bugler Steve Buttleman tripped over a riser behind the stage. He was on his back for a few minutes, and the subsequent diagnosis was a ruptured quadriceps tendon in his left leg. Despite the injury, he wasn’t scratched, and he played the “Call to The Post” on his 22nd consecutive Derby Day while wearing a brace over his white pants.
Around the track
Temperature at 10:30 for Saturday’s first race was 47, and it was raining steadily. It’s the coldest Derby Day since 1989, when the low was 43, with rain and occasional snow flurries. The sun made a surprise appearance at noon, raising the spirits of the huge crowd immeasurably while ambushing those who hadn’t counted on the need for sunscreen . . . Derby Day is by far Kentucky’s greatest social occasion, and the fashion show is like none other. Besides the elegant hats and dresses on the women and expensive suits on the men, there are thousands of bizarre “Look at me” getups. Among them are plaid and purple sports jackets, pink pants with little horses on them, and neck-crushing hats topped by a replica of Churchill Downs.