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.