LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is feeling the pressure now. The five-time Kentucky Derby winner finds himself with new favorite Game Winner since Omaha Beach was scratched with a breathing problem.
“Oh, boy, here we go,” the white-haired trainer said Thursday to a throng outside his Churchill Downs barn. “I think everybody is trying to jinx me. It’s still a very wide-open race.”
The Derby possibly could lose another horse, too.
Haikal, a 30-1 shot trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, is being treated for an abscess in his left front foot. The Gotham Stakes winner didn’t train Thursday and soaked in Epsom salts to reduce the accumulation of pus in his infected foot.
If Haikal can’t train again Friday, McLaughlin said he would be out of the race. The deadline to scratch is Friday morning.
No matter how much he tries to deflect the attention, Baffert holds a strong hand heading into Saturday’s race. Game Winner is the 9-2 early favorite, and his two other horses, Improbable and Roadster, are the co-second choices at 5-1.
A sixth victory would tie him for the most wins by a trainer in the Derby’s 145-year history.
“I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty favorite now,” he insisted.
Instead, he tried to sic the media on Jason Servis, who trains Maximum Security. The Florida Derby winner is a 10-1 shot.
“He should be the favorite,” Baffert said. “He’s a horse that nobody is talking about and that’s a horse that I’m worried about. He’s run faster than we have. Put the pressure on Jason, will you?”
Over at his barn, Servis empathized with trainer Richard Mandella and 78-year-old owner Rick Porter, their Derby hopes dashed a day earlier. But he was glad to see Mike Smith knocked out of the race. The 53-year-old Hall of Famer is a crafty rider who won a year ago with Justify.
“I was really happy about that, especially having him outside of me,” said Servis, alluding to Smith’s ability to have possibly prompted Maximum Security into a quicker than desirable early pace.
Baffert said he gave no thought to replacing Florent Geroux aboard Game Winner with Smith.
“I would never do that to the riders,” he said, having started in racing as a jockey.
Meanwhile, Omaha Beach was set to have surgery Thursday to fix an entrapped epiglottis that affects his breathing. The minor procedure, at nearby clinic Lexington, will require two to three weeks of recovery, enough time to knock the colt off the Triple Crown trail. He’s expected to race this summer.
“As bad as it felt yesterday, it would be a horrible feeling to have him not finish well and know that I was at fault for running him,” Mandella said. “So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is give it up and go to the next step.”
Prominent owner and breeder Arthur Hancock was among many who contacted Mandella to express sympathy. Hancock pointed out that the late training great Charlie Whittingham was 73 when he won his first and only Derby.
“So who I am to think I should be doing this now?” said Mandella, who is 68.
Baffert felt Mandella’s pain. In 2014, he had to scratch Hoppertunity because of a minor foot problem two days before the Derby.
“There’s nothing like coming to the Derby when you have a legitimate chance to win it and then all of a sudden the rug is just pulled out from under you,” Baffert said. “It’s a tough feeling.”
Certainly much tougher than saddling the top three wagering choices in the Derby.
Alluding to his 2012 heart attack in Dubai, Baffert assured onlookers he could handle the pressure.
“I got three stents and they’re good,” he said, patting his chest with both hands.