When Bodemeister runs in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, many fans will harbor doubts about him that are based on the race’s history. The fast colt is relatively inexperienced. He did not make his career debut until January, and not since 1882 has a horse won the Derby without running as a 2-year-old.
But Bodemeister has some historical evidence on his side, too. His trainer, Bob Baffert, has captured America’s most famous race three times since 1997, tying him for fourth place on the all-time list of Derby-winning trainers. In the racing game today, Baffert is the undisputed master at preparing horses for the Triple Crown series. Besides his Derby successes, he has recorded five victories in the Preakness and one in the Belmont Stakes.
There is always a mystique about great trainers, who seem to possess the ability to look at a horse and see things that other people don’t see. Journalist Bill Nack, in a profile of Baffert for GQ magazine, wrote: “No one . . . has more manifest gifts as a horse whisperer. . . . Baffert has emerged as a white-maned wizard of the turf [with a] singular feel for horses and an instinct for divining how to make them run long, hard and fast.”
The key to Baffert’s success may not be some mysterious, ineffable gift. The white-maned wizard might have been considered a conventional trainer if he lived in the era when members of his profession regularly trained their horses fast and raced them hard. But in the last quarter-century, as thoroughbreds have evidently become less robust, American horsemen train thoroughbreds more gently and prefer to give them as much as a month or two to recuperate between races. Running horses who are “fresh” is now the orthodoxy of the business.
Such an approach is alien to Baffert’s background. He spent his formative years at quarter-horse tracks in Arizona, where the object of training is to get a horse to deliver an explosion of raw speed. Nobody does this with a gentle touch. When Baffert made his transition to the thoroughbred sport, he did so in California, where the fast-paced races over hard, speed-favoring tracks forced trainers to drill horses hard so they could be competitive.
As the fashion in training techniques changed, men such as Todd Pletcher and the late Bobby Frankel achieved great success by campaigning their horses sparingly, but Baffert remained committed to his methods. He worked youngsters hard and fast before they ever ran, and was unapologetic about it: “If you train them fast, in the long run they are going to stay sounder.” He did watch closely for any clues that the tough regimen might be having adverse consequences. Clocker Bruno De Julio of GradeOneRacing.com, who has observed Baffert’s work for years, said, “If a horse develops a pimple, he doesn’t let it get worse. He gives them time off.”
Baffert rejects the theory that has been a cornerstone of Pletcher’s and Frankel’s approach, that if a horse runs too fast he will “bounce” — i.e., regress — if he doesn’t have plenty of rest before his next start. In a horse’s final prep race before the Kentucky Derby, Baffert wants a maximum effort. Silver Charm got involved in a gut-wrenching speed duel in the 1997 Santa Anita Derby and came back to win the Derby brilliantly. All three of Baffert’s Derby winners captured the Preakness two weeks later. They didn’t bounce. Baffert said, “A lot of trainers feel, ‘I can’t do this or that because he’s going to bounce,’ and so they baby them along.”
Of course, advocates of the bounce theory have had undeniable success. Pletcher and Frankel led the nation in earnings in nine of the last 11 years. But when a thoroughbred faces extreme stress — such as running 1¼ miles in a 20-horse field at Churchill Downs — he needs to be sufficiently toughened for the challenge. It can hardly be a coincidence that Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, who have similar training backgrounds, are the top two living trainers of Derby winners, while Pletcher’s Derby record is 1 for 29 and Frankel’s was 0 for 8.
At first glance, Bodemeister may look like an atypical Baffert horse because he started his career so late and has raced only four times coming into the Derby. Often this would be a sign that a 2-year-old had physical problems, but Baffert said: “Bodemeister was just young and immature. I wanted him to get ready at his own pace. But he had 26 workouts before he ever started. He has a foundation under him.”
When he started racing in earnest, Bodemeister displayed clear Derby potential, but in the midst of his preparations Baffert suffered a heart attack while he was overseas for the Dubai World Cup. The trainer forced himself to slow down his usual pace, but he didn’t slow down Bodemeister. When he decided to send the colt to the Arkansas Derby for his final prep race, he said, “I really started cranking him up.” Bodemeister responded with a 9½-length runaway that was by far the most impressive performance of any 3-year-old this spring.
The bounce theorists would have worried about such a fast prep race only three weeks before the Derby, but Baffert wasn’t worried and he wasn’t finished cranking. At Churchill Downs he worked Bodemeister twice in five days. After the colt went five-eighths of a mile in a sizzling 59.48 seconds Sunday, Daily Racing Form clocker exclaimed: “You couldn’t ask for a better work. Bob Baffert is really putting the hammer down.”
Baffert knows all too well the unpredictability of the Derby. He lost his first try, with Cavonnier in 1996, by an excruciating nose. He lost in 2010 when the favorite Lookin at Lucky drew the disastrous No. 1 post position and encountered terrible racing luck. He knows there are things he can’t control. But he does control his horse’s preparation. Despite his lack of racing experience, Bodemeister will be as fit and sharp on Saturday as a trainer can make him.
For Andrew Beyer’s previous columns go to washingtonpost.com/beyer.