The trophy everyone wants most is the hardest one to get. The Kentucky Derby is racing’s Holy Grail, but unlike that mythical cup, somebody takes home the 24-karat gold prize every year. Bob Baffert has five of them, one short of Ben Jones’ record, and he’s trained two Triple Crown winners. Yet even after last year’s sweep with Justify, Baffert still burns with Derby fever.
“This time of year is very stressful,” Baffert said Tuesday. “I still feel the same anxiety going in. For me, once the year is over, the slate’s clean. I’m going in like I’m trying to win my first Derby.”
That’s something trainers Bill Mott and Kiaran McLaughlin haven’t done. They’ve won just about every other big race, and Saturday at Aqueduct they’ll try to set themselves up for May 4 at Churchill Downs. McLaughlin will send out Haikal (7-2, post 4) in the Wood Memorial, and Mott will saddle Tampa Bay Derby winner Tacitus (5-2 favorite, post 2) in the field of 11.
When McLaughlin was a 12-year-old in Lexington, Kentucky, he wrote an essay saying he wanted to become a trainer and win the Derby. He’s 0-for-8, with his best finish a second with Closing Argument in 2005. “It would be fabulous to win it,” he said. “We’re close to being able to run, and it’s very exciting.”
Haikal never has tried two turns, so the 1 1/8-mile Wood is unknown territory. His come-from-behind victory last month in the Big A’s Gotham Stakes was in a one-turn mile, and maybe he’s a closing sprinter/miler.
“We feel like he’ll be better going longer,” McLaughlin said. “We’re not concerned about the mile and an eighth, but we’ll find out Saturday.”
Regardless of their Wood performances, Haikal and Tacitus have enough Derby qualifying points. So does Baffert’s 2-year-old champion Game Winner, who will face five rivals in the Santa Anita Derby. Most of their opponents and the 14 runners in Keeneland’s Blue Grass Stakes must run big to guarantee a spot. Each 9-furlong prep awards 100, 40, 20 and 10 points for first through fourth.
There’s no Justify this spring, so everybody thinks they’ve got a shot. Favorites flopped in preps in Arkansas, Louisiana, Dubai and Florida as Omaha Beach, Long Range Toddy, By My Standards, Plus Que Parfait and Maximum Security pulled off upsets.
“It’s very wide open,” McLaughlin said, “and we’re happy to have a live horse.”