West: Is this the year Baffert reaches the unreachable?
Five Derby wins in this era greater feat than Jones' six
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(Photo: Bob Baffert and jockey Joel Rosario. Benoit Photo)
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On the road to Kentucky
Commentary by Gary West
Having been raised on a ranch in Nogales, Ariz., near the Mexican border, and having ridden during his teen years in a fair share of those I-bet-my-horse-can-outrun-yours races that were so common in the Southwest, he once thought that having a 20-horse stable at Rillito Park would be — well, that it would be proof he had made it. He made it all right.
“I was just hoping that one day I’d be training 20 horses,” Bob Baffert said, recalling his early years as a quarter horse trainer at Rillito Park in Tucson in the late 1970s. “I thought that would be great. That was the goal, to train 20 horses. I never thought I’d be here. It’s been quite a journey.”
From Rillito Park, the journey has been extraordinary, landing Baffert in the most celebrated winner’s circles, his image on the most respected magazine covers and his name in the most revered record books alongside the coruscating numbers that attempt to quantify and define his career: nearly $300 million in earnings; more than 3,000 victories; 20 champions, with three Horses of the Year; 15 victories in Triple Crown races; 15 in Breeders’ Cup Championship races; four Eclipse Awards; and two Triple Crown winners. He has become the face of horse racing, the game’s most recognizable luminary, a member of the Hall of Fame — quite a journey indeed.
And Baffert could soon tie a record once thought unreachable. It’s one of those lapidary standards like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, or Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters, or Wayne Gretzky’s 91 goals or Byron Nelson’s 11 consecutive PGA wins. Horse racing’s unbreakable record has been legendary trainer Ben Jones’ six Kentucky Derby victories. Until D. Wayne Lukas won with Charismatic in 1999, only one trainer other than Jones had won more than three: Herbert J. “Derby Dick” Thompson, who won his fourth and final Derby with Brokers Tip in 1933. Jones blew by Thompson’s record in 1949 with Ponder and won again in 1952 with Hill Gail, his sixth Derby.
Baffert has won five. That’s five and counting. And aimed in the direction of Louisville, Ky., squarely at the first Saturday in May, he has three of this year’s leading Derby contenders: Thousand Words, Nadal and Authentic.
But first, before discussing the Baffert trio, this needs to be said: Winning the Kentucky Derby is much more difficult today than it was when Jones accumulated his victories. Because of that, from here, Baffert’s five wins in America’s premier race already represent a greater achievement than Jones’ six.
Foremost among the reasons for that is the racehorse population. Lawrin, Jones’ first Derby winner, was foaled in 1935, when the North American foal crop totaled 5,038; Silver Charm, Baffert’s first, was foaled in 1994, when the North American foal crop totaled 35,341. How much more difficult is it to be preeminent among 35,000 than among 5,000?
Jones’ six Derby winners emerged from foal crops that totaled 38,707, an average of 6,451 foals. Baffert’s five Derby winners emerged from foal crops that totaled 153,830, an average of 30,766 foals.
Another contributing factor here is World War II. Jones won the Derby with Whirlaway seven months before America entered the war in 1941 and with Pensive in 1944. During the war, horse racing contracted and competition declined. The foal crop shrank 14.4 percent during this period. With a dearth of workers and a curtailment of public transportation, racing was subject to approval by local War Manpower Commissions. Some racetracks simply closed. Saratoga, for example, closed after its 1942 season and remained dark until 1946. And so with fewer horses and less competition, winning the Derby wasn’t quite the mountain climb it would become.
Moreover, the modern Derby itself isn’t what it used to be. It’s much more. When Jones won his first, Matt Winn, Churchill Downs’ president and impresario, already had established the Derby as America’s most glamorous, festive and exciting horse race. Making his point, Winn and the Derby had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1937. But television heralded a new era. Jones’ final Derby in 1952 was the first to receive national television coverage, and since then the first event in the Triple Crown has grown so significantly in cultural importance and visibility that it’s no longer just the nation’s premier race but also one of the most meaningful and poignant events in all of sport, and winning it one of the most gratifying. It’s the race everyone knows and everyone wants to win. And with its burgeoning importance and popularity, the Derby field has grown so dramatically that Churchill has had to limit the field 20. During the Jones era, the average Derby field was 13.
One more factor worth noting. All but one of Jones’ Derby victories were for Calumet Farm, the sport’s dominant owner and breeder. During the Jones era, Calumet topped the national owners’ and breeders’ standings eight times. But nobody dominates racing today, at least not the same way or to the degree that Calumet did in the 1940s. Baffert, on the other hand, has won his five Derbies for five different owners.
But who will be his sixth, and will it be this year that Baffert reaches the unreachable?
“Thousand Words is getting better,” Baffert said about the winner of the recent Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Thousand Words doesn’t have tree-bending speed or knock-back acceleration, but he wins, and, even more, “He wants to win,” Baffert said. “He’s a grinder, and he’s very professional.” Thousand Words should improve as the distances stretch out, his trainer said, and the classic mile-and-a-quarter should bring out his best.
Authentic is a different story altogether. “He’s just raw talent,” Baffert said about the colt that won the Sham Stakes despite ducking towards the inner rail in mid-stretch, perhaps shying from the grandstand noise. With the addition of earplugs, he recently worked a bullet three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.20.
“He’s light on his feet and has a lot of speed,” Baffert said, “but he’s not made like a sprinter. He’s barely tapped his talent.”
Their styles complementary, Thousand Words and Authentic will both return March 7 in the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita. And Nadal will go to Oaklawn Park to make his two-turn debut in the Rebel Stakes on March 14. Nadal, of course, won the recent San Vicente Stakes after battling through a scorched-earth half-mile in 44.09 seconds.
“He’ll never have to run that fast again,” Baffert said about Nadal’s half-mile split in the San Vicente. “I like the way he gutted it out. It’s very rare you see a horse run a race like that, especially in their second start. Only the good ones can do stuff like that. He’s tough. He shouldn’t have any trouble stretching out.”
With such a talented trio in his barn — Baffert said he would also include High Velocity among his horses with a chance to make the journey to Kentucky — he has the Jones record in sight. Or he would if he cared about such things.
“I’ve never been one for worrying about records,” he said before launching into a story about winning his 2,000th race.
“We were at Hollywood Park, and this guy came up to me and said, ‘Do you realize you just won your 2000th race?’ I said, ‘Really? I thought I had won more than that by now.’
“A few minutes later I saw Jerry Hollendorfer in the paddock, and I said, ‘Jerry, how many races have you won?’ He said, ‘Oh, about 4,500 or so.’ Records come and go.”
True, but six Derby wins —that record hasn’t gone anywhere in 68 years. But it could soon go into the Baffert column.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.
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Bob Baffert and jockey Joel Rosario. Benoit Photo