DERBY CROWNS A PHAROAH, BAFERT EXHALES
The Kentucky Derby is about a lot of different dreams for many different people. Just sending a horse to the starting gates satisfies some while others look for more. Visions of grandeur dance through the minds of many no matter if it is your first Derby horse or 26th. Long shots are great if you have that winning ticket, but the general public wants a superstar. For one trainer in particular, he has laid awake at night and dodged black cats looking to give the faithful what they want.
Bob Baffert strode into Churchill Downs in 2015 with a stacked deck again. As one of the most decorated trainers in the country and the top conditioner on the West Coast, having highly acclaimed horses was not a first for the Arizona native. After winning the Kentucky Derby three times in a six year span (1997, 1998, 2002), Baffert brought brilliance in the form of horses like Point Given, Pioneer of the Nile and Bodemeister to the twin spires but came up just short every time. This year, he had heavyweights American Pharoah and Dortmund primed for a big run at not only Derby glory but sport superstardom. And the Pharoah responded for his trainer and the public with a big run down the stretch and into immortality.
“Coming in I felt a lot of positive energy because I knew everybody wanted to see something big happen,” says Baffert. “They wanted to see something they could hang their hat on. This horse just has an aura about him and I think people can sense American Pharoah is something special. When they turned for home and he was battling with Dortmund and Firing Line I was like just get there, please! Over the last 12 years there has been a lot of pressure. It has been good pressure, but it’s pressure.”
Given the fact he had come up just short with some other can’t miss horses in the past, Derby week was a bit challenging for Baffert. Facing the fact everyone expects you to win is certainly different from being a 50-1 shot. Using his California cool, Baffert changed things just a bit to have his horse ready for a big run.
“We actually had a good week with no major incidents,” says Baffert. “With these kinds of horses there is a fine line you walk. I wanted him to fresh coming in so when the gates opened he would get with the program. He may have been a little fresher than he should have been because there were some anxious moments on the walkover with all the people yelling and screaming, but he settles down and ran great. But because of his freshness I think the Derby will not set him back at all and he will be ready for the Preakness.”
American Pharoah’s run was most impressive as jockey Victor Espinoza rode him brilliantly. Facing major competition in deep stretch, Pharoah ran royally and gave Bob Baffert an end to a decade of frustration. Next up will be another step towards quenching the public’s thirst for a Triple Crown winner. Baffert has won the second leg of the Triple Crown five times and every one of his Derby champs took the race at Pimlico.
“We have got the tough one out of the way now”, says Baffert. “The morning after the Derby Pharoah looked great.”