It was 1996, Bob Baffert’s first Kentucky Derby, and as his gelding Cavonnier hit the wire, the Derby newbie thought he’d held off Grindstone by a nose.
But like almost everybody else, Baffert couldn’t be sure, because Cavonnier was on the inside and Grindstone was out in the middle of the track. Perspective was skewed, because rarely are horses who finish so close together so far apart. The first time Baffert watched the replay, he thought he’d won. The second time, he wasn’t so sure.
Exhilaration and dread mingled within him for what felt like forever, and when Grindstone’s number flashed above Cavonnier’s on the tote board, he was devastated.
“For about eight minutes, I thought I won the Kentucky Derby,” Baffert said recently. “But when they hung up the number, I thought that was it for me. I thought I’d never be back. I thought I blew my shot.”
He couldn’t have been more wrong. A year later, Silver Charm earned Baffert his first Derby trophy, followed by Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and American Pharoah (2015), the first Triple Crown hero since Affirmed in 1978. The former quarter-horse guy from Nogales, Arizona, entered the Hall of Fame in 2009. Baffert, 65, has 12 classic wins, including six Preaknesses and two Belmonts, and he’s back at Churchill Downs with the undefeated Derby favorite, Justify.
From the beginning, Baffert knew this handsome chestnut colt was unusually gifted. “The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”
After dominating an allowance next time, Justify led throughout the Santa Anita Derby to prove he’s the real deal. To students of history, there’s one problem, though. Justify didn’t debut until Feb. 18, and not since Apollo in 1882 has a Derby winner not raced as a 2-year-old.
One of Justify’s main rivals, Magnum Moon, also is undefeated and didn’t run last year. Like his trainer, Todd Pletcher, Baffert isn’t intimidated by The Curse of Apollo. If he could sweep the Triple Crown, which many believed would never happen again, why can’t he make more history?
“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said. “Back in the day people would run their horses a lot more and run their 2-year-olds a lot earlier. The game has changed. It’s going to happen.”
It almost happened in the 2012 Derby, when Baffert’s Bodemeister, unraced at 2, was caught in deep stretch by I’ll Have Another.
Besides being late to the races, Justify never has dealt with pace pressure or traffic. In a 20-horse Derby he’ll face five more opponents than in his first three races combined. But he’s training brilliantly, zipping his final furlong in 12 seconds Thursday at Santa Anita.
Handicapper Jeff Siegel has been on his bandwagon from Day One. Ten years ago, he touted Big Brown after his 3-year-old debut, only his second career race, which preceded romps in the Florida Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness. Siegel rarely gushes but makes an exception for Justify.
“He’s a fantastic prospect doing everything that a champion should,” Siegel said on xbtv.com. “He’s training like the superhorse he very well may be.”
Since enduring Cavonnier’s horrific beat that “bothered me for a year,” Baffert has seen everything on Derby Day. “I’ve gotten beat with the best horse,” he said. Favorites Point Given and Lookin At Lucky finished fifth and sixth, respectively, before dominating the Preakness.
“My biggest concern is racing luck,” Baffert said. “There are so many things that can go wrong in a race. Crazy things happen in the Derby. There are a lot of things to be concerned about, but Justify’s talent isn’t one of them.”