LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) Bob Baffert went from thinking he could win a fifth Kentucky Derby to being out of it in the space of a few seconds.
Once Mastery got hurt after winning a prep race this winter, Baffert no longer had a horse for the first Saturday in May. It was a huge blow to a trainer who’s missed the Derby just twice since 2009 and whose four victories are tied for second-most in history.
Mastery won the San Felipe Stakes by 6 } lengths at Santa Anita, and Baffert made his way to the winner’s circle believing the colt was “the second coming” of his Triple Crown champion American Pharoah.
“We were so excited,” he said Tuesday. “I had taken my time with him. I wanted him ready for all three races.”
But just past the finish line, Mastery took a bad step and sustained a condylar fracture, a common injury among thoroughbreds. The colt had screws inserted in his left front ankle and is recovering.
“It’s a part of the game that gets really bitter,” Baffert said. “It gets you so upset. It can be so cruel.”
Now there’s no need for metal barriers to keep back crowds outside Baffert’s barn on the backstretch at Churchill Downs. All the pre-Derby hustle and bustle is going on elsewhere in the stable area. No media hordes waiting for a few bon mots from the white-haired trainer.
That’s what happens when you’re an observer and not a participant in America’s greatest race.
Don’t think it doesn’t bother him.
“I’m just trying to get there again,” he said. “I want another shot at it with an American Pharoah (foal). His babies look really good.”
In 2015, American Pharoah swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont for the sport’s first Triple Crown victory in 37 years. The horse retired later that year and is now busy producing offspring that Baffert hopes follow in their sire’s hoof prints.
He bred a mare to American Pharoah, who stands in nearby Lexington, where the trainer and his wife Jill have visited their equine friend who became like family.
American Pharoah’s achievement cemented Baffert’s reputation as one of the greatest trainers in the sport’s history. Even without a current Derby runner, he still got rock-star treatment Tuesday from backstretch visitors eager for signed photos, ball caps and whiskey bottles done up in the colors of American Pharoah’s silks.
Fans posed against the backdrop of green-and-white signs nailed to the barn wall naming Baffert’s Derby and Triple Crown winners.
They shouldn’t feel sorry for him. He trains Arrogate, a 4-year-old colt who was injured during last year’s Triple Crown series but rebounded to win the Travers Stakes, Breeders’ Cup Classic, Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup, racking up $17 million in earnings. Arrogate is set to resume racing this summer.
Baffert does have one bit of business this week. He’s here to saddle filly Abel Tasman in the $1 million Kentucky Oaks on Friday. Then he’ll fly home to Southern California on Saturday morning and be back in time to catch the Derby from the comfort of his couch.
“I’ll be watching everybody stressing out,” he said. “It’ll be fun.”
Baffert has a rooting interest in four Derby runners that were sired by horses he once trained.
“That’s when you know you’ve been in this game a long time,” the 64-year-old Hall of Famer said.
Two of them – Always Dreaming and Classic Empire – could be the favorites for the 1 \-mile race. Always Dreaming, trained by Todd Pletcher, was sired by Pioneerof the Nile. Classic Empire, trained by Mark Casse, was sired by Bodemeister.
The other two will be longshots. Lookin At Lee, trained by Steve Asmussen, was sired by Lookin At Lucky. Sonneteer, who is 0 for 10 in his career and trained by Keith Desormeaux, was sired by Midnight Lute, who never ran in the Derby.
Baffert is also cheering on his pal Bode Miller, part-owner of Fast And Accurate, one of an expected 20 horses in the field. For years, the Olympic skier has been a Derby week regular at Baffert’s barn. The trainer’s pre-teen son is named for the athlete.
“It’s a different feeling if you’ve got a horse in there,” Baffert said. “Believe me, he’ll come out of it with a totally different perception. He’ll understand what it’s all about – the importance of the race, the emotions that run through you. Everybody should go through it.”
Baffert hopes he does again next year.