To nobody's surprise, Bob Baffert has a leading contender for the Kentucky Derby. It wouldn't be the same without him.
His Lookin at Lucky, last year's two-year old champion, drew post number seven this morning and is the morning line favorite for Saturday's Grade 1, $750K Santa Anita Derby. It's the last step before Baffert can start thinking about winning the Kentucky Derby for the fourth time.
“We think about it, but I have to get him there first," said Baffert, whose Pioneerof The Nile won the Santa Anita Derby last year before finishing second in the Kentucky Derby. "Until you put the saddle on and you hear “Old Kentucky Home” and you’re walking up to your box, you just don't know. I usually know off the last work if I have a chance to win. I don’t know now, it’s too early. But, I’ll know when I get there and I work him.”
To get there, Lucky has to put in a good effort in the Santa Anita Derby this weekend.
“I want a good showing, we need to run 1-2-3," said Baffert. "I lost a week on him. He worked well the other day. He’s a horse that stays pretty fit. I can get him ready really quick. That’s the thing about him, he’s just one of those that you don’t want to do too much with.”
In winning his first start of 2010 in the Grade 1, $300K Rebel at Oaklawn Park three weeks ago, Lucky overcame a terrible trip to storm home in the lane and beat Noble's Promise to the wire by a head.
“The dirt hit him. He jumped up a few times and was starting to get used to it. Then after that, they came over on him and he clipped heels and jumped in the air and whacked himself like three times pretty good," said Baffert. "He didn’t lose his composure. He sat back there and waited. I thought, ‘Boy, he’s going to have to be a really good horse if he’s going to run this other horse down.’ He comes and does it and when he hits the wire he just threw his ears up like it was no big deal. That’s when I felt really good about truly having a solid Derby horse.”
Baffert was quick to praise jockey Garret Gomez for keeping his composure as well.
"What Garret did when he almost got dropped, he could have easily started chasing the leaders, he didn’t," said Baffert. "It had to have scared the horse. If he would have gone down it could really, really set us back."
The main challenge in the Santa Anita Derby is most likely to come from front-runner Sidney's Candy, who won the Grade 2, $150K San Felipe Stakes here three weeks ago in wire-to-wire fashion. However, Baffert's focus is on his colt.
“We just want to worry about him. Just like I told Garrett in the Rebel, I just want him to get around and get a good experience out of this and finish up," said Baffert when I asked him if he was worried about Sidney's Candy getting a loose lead again.
"If he wins, fine. If he doesn’t, don’t worry about it. We just want to see how he breaks, put him in a comfortable spot and go from there. I know the minute we got him on the dirt, he moved so much better on the dirt than he does here. This is not really one of his favorite surfaces.”
The Pro Ride surface at Santa Anita has come under much scrutiny over the past couple of years, as have all synthetic tracks. Baffert would like to see a return to dirt.
“The thing about synthetics is they mess up the jockey’s more than anything else. They don’t know what to do. They leave there, they grab them, it’s like a turf race," said Baffert. "Sit, sit, sit and go, instead of letting a horse use his natural speed. It changes from day to day. Depends on the weather, the heat, whatever. So when that happens, like out here, some of the preps they went ¾ in 1:13. You can’t learn anything from that. They all sprint home. You leave there shaking your head.”
Baffert had two other Kentucky Derby hopefuls run last weekend with disappointing results.
Conveyance finished second to Endorsement in the Grade 3, $800K Sunland Derby after going off an overwhelming favorite and leading into the top of the stretch.
"I was really puzzled by his last race," said Baffert. "I don’t know why he was so tired. He was already done when he hit the top of the stretch. That’s not him. I don’t know if the altitude got him. Maybe I didn’t do enough with him. I’m trying to blame myself for it, but I’m going to take him and work him and see how he handles it. He’s the kind of horse that I think just wants to roll. So if I take him, we’ll just let him roll instead of holding him back."
The Program finished seventh in the Grade 2, $750K Louisiana Derby and is likely to get a freshening before possibly being pointed towards the Belmont Stakes in June.
"I’m sort of disappointed in his race. He was behind horses and never could relax," said Baffert.
Another contender that is new to Baffert's stable is Game on Dude, who finished seventh in the Florida Derby in February, and is being stabled at Keeneland. Baffert said that Los Angeles Dodgers' manager Joe Torre is part of the ownership team and the horse is being pointed to either the Bluegrass or Coolmore Lexington Stakes.
Three-year olds aren't the only horses running in big races for Baffert these days. His Richard's Kid was in Dubai last weekend for the $10 million World Cup, where he also finished a disappointing seventh.
"He really was going to run a big race, but nobody went," said Baffert. "They galloped around there the half in 52. Just ridiculous. They were all bundled up there and I thought, 'Oh, my God, $6 million bucks.' He came out well and he’ll be back this week."
In today's fifth race, a starter allowance going six furlongs, Baffert brings back the six-year old Bullfighter. After running second in his debut at Hollywood Park in December, he broke his maiden by seven lengths here at Santa Anita three weeks later before finishing third by a neck at the same level he returns at today.
Since then, he shows six solid works in the morning, including three bullets.
"He’s fast. He better win. It’s a good spot for him," said Baffert. "He had an issue that needed eight months. Like a soft tissue issue. That’s the thing about synthetics, a lot of soft tissue injuries. So, we gave him a lot of time off. He’s doing well."
On paper, there appears to be a lot of other speed signed up so expect jockey Martin Garcia to try and run them off their feet.
“Martin is great. He does whatever I tell him. He’s a rising star," said Baffert, who is winning 26 percent of the time with Garcia on board at the meet.
Don't forget to follow me on Twitter @mdoche!