Kentucky Derby leads off Triple Crown without Bob Baffert

AP Photo/Charlie Riedel

The Kentucky Derby leads off the first Triple Crown season in decades without the chance of Bob Baffert officially winning one or more of the three races.

Baffert’s absence while suspended shadows over the race, particularly because two horses he trained for a significant period of time are among the top contenders. Former assistant Tim Yakteen would get the credit if Taiba or Messier wins after taking over training duties.

“It’s a talking point, but it’s not a distraction other than that,” retired jockey Jerry Bailey said. “To me, the only thing that’s going to be different is the record books.”

Taiba could become the first horse since 1883 to win the Derby with two or fewer previous starts. Baffert-trained Justify won it on the way to sweeping the Triple Crown in 2018 after racing just three times before the first Saturday in May.

“Times have changed in that regard,” NBC Sports analyst Randy Moss said. “Horses run much less often now leading into the Kentucky Derby in general, so it was just a matter of time.”

This is Bailey’s 34th Derby and Moss’ 41st, with many of them on the NBC Sports set and around the Churchill Downs barns and track together for more than a decade. They tend to agree more often than not, with the notable exception of 2014 when they disagreed about the ride jockey Victor Espinoza gave California Chrome in losing the Belmont with the chance to end the sport’s lengthy Triple Crown drought.

Asked if there was a potential Triple Crown winner in this crop of 3-year-olds, Moss said it was impossible to say and pointed to plenty of near-misses over the years. Bailey thinks lightly raced Taiba could be the one.

“If he were able to do this and win the Kentucky Derby, he still only has three starts this year,” said Bailey, who won the Derby twice. “With others maybe having peaked or close to being peaked to try and get to the Kentucky Derby and win it, he might be one that is just on the ascension.”

Among the 10 horses who entered the Derby with as little racing experience as Taiba over the past century-plus, none have come close to winning this race.

“The average margin of defeat’s been 25 lengths,” Moss said. “But the difference is none of those horses were given any chance at all to win. And this horse is completely different. This horse is in with an outstanding chance to win.”

Taiba faces a different challenge in a crowded, 20-horse field than his first two races with much more room to maneuver. Bailey said the challenge is for Mike Smith to try to replicate the trips Taiba got his first two times out of the starting gate to keep the colt comfortable.

“He hasn’t run against large fields, and he’s had very, very clean trips, no traffic,” Bailey said. “For Mike Smith, his biggest job is to get him out of the starting gate, which the horse does have some early speed and put him in a position where there’s not that many new things happening to him early in the race.”

A victory by Taiba would make Smith, 56, the oldest jockey to win the Derby. In his way are a record five jockeys from France and a few trainers not named Baffert looking to capture the first jewel of the Triple Crown for the first time.

Steve Asmussen, who has the most wins of any trainer in North America, has the expected favorite in Epicenter. Chad Brown’s Zandon is another serious challenger who is training well and could give the champion trainer his first Derby victory.

Crown Pride would be the first Japan-based horse to win any Triple Crown race. He won the UAE Derby in March in Dubai.

The post position draw is Monday in Louisville.

Forte works out, waits for Belmont Stakes clearance

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NEW YORK — Forte, the early Kentucky Derby favorite who was scratched on the day of the race, worked out in preparation for a possible start in the Belmont Stakes on June 10.

Under regular rider Irad Ortiz Jr., Forte worked five-eighths of a mile for Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher. It was the colt’s second workout since being scratched from the Derby on May 6.

“It seems like he’s maintained his fitness level,” Pletcher said. “It seems like everything is in good order.”

Forte was placed on a mandatory 14-day veterinary list after being scratched from the Derby because of a bruised right front foot. In order to be removed from the list, the colt had to work in front of a state veterinarian and give a blood sample afterward, the results of which take five days.

“There’s protocols in place and we had to adhere to those and we’re happy that everything went smoothly,” Pletcher said. “We felt confident the horse was in good order or we wouldn’t have been out there twice in the last six days, but you still want to make sure everything went smoothly and we’re happy everything did go well.”

Pletcher said Kingsbarns, who finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, will miss the Belmont. The colt is showing signs of colic, although he is fine, the trainer said.

Another Pletcher-trained horse, Prove Worthy, is under consideration for the Belmont. He also has Tapit Trice, who finished seventh in the Derby, being pointed toward the Belmont.

Judge grants Churchill Downs’ request for summary judgment to dismiss Bob Baffert’s lawsuit

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — A federal judge has granted Churchill Downs’ motion for summary judgment that dismisses Bob Baffert’s claim the track breached due process by suspending the Hall of Fame trainer for two years.

Churchill Downs Inc. suspended Baffert in June 2021 after his now-deceased colt, Medina Spirit, failed a postrace drug test after crossing the finish line first in the 147th Kentucky Derby. The trainer’s request to lift the discipline was denied in February, keeping him out of the Derby for a second consecutive May.

U.S. District Court Judge Rebecca Grady Jennings ruled in a 12-page opinion issued Wednesday that Churchill Downs’ suspension of Baffert did not devalue his Kentucky trainer’s license. It cited his purse winnings exceeding $1 million at Keeneland in Lexington and stated that his argument “amounts to a false analogy that distorts caselaw.”

Jennings denied CDI’s motion to stay discovery as moot.

The decision comes less than a week after Baffert-trained colt National Treasure won the Preakness in his first Triple Crown race in two years. His record eighth win in the second jewel of the Triple Crown came hours after another of his horses, Havnameltdown, was euthanized following an injury at Pimlico.

Churchill Downs said in a statement that it was pleased with the court’s favorable ruling as in Baffert’s other cases.

It added, “While he may choose to file baseless appeals, this completes the seemingly endless, arduous and unnecessary litigation proceedings instigated by Mr. Baffert.”

Baffert’s suspension is scheduled to end on June 2, but the track’s release noted its right to extend it “and will communicate our decision” at its conclusion.