LOUISVILLE — Bob Baffert calls his son, Bode, over for the cameras. The boy, a shy 7-year-old, relents as his mother brushes a mess of brown hair from his eyes.
Then the boy shows what he’s learned from his father, the witty trainer whose hard-driving style has led to three trips to the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby.
“Who are you rooting for?” Bode is asked as he stares at a giant microphone hovering near his head. (“Looks like a rat,” Baffert had exclaimed.)
“I don’t know,” Bode says, scratching his head and twisting his face to look confused.
“Okay, I guess I’ll root for Bodemeister,” the boy says after considerable goading — and a reminder that the 4-1 morning-line favorite for the 138th running of horse racing’s most prestigious race happens to be named for him.
Baffert, who last claimed the roses at Churchill Downs in 2002 with War Emblem, will saddle a brilliant but untested colt in the Derby, which is scheduled for 6:24 p.m. Saturday and will be broadcast by NBC. Bodemeister didn’t race as a 2-year-old; no such horse has won the Kentucky Derby in 130 years. But Bodemeister, who won the Arkansas Derby by 91 / 2 lengths, also recorded three triple-digit Beyer speed figures; the rest of the field also recorded three — combined.
“He’s been fantastic all week,” Baffert said. “He’s worked well all over the track and seems to like it. He was that way going into Arkansas, and we’ll need the race to be there in the end.”
Baffert has been in the spotlight — not that he minds — for more than his horse. He suffered a heart attack in Dubai and has since dropped 10 pounds. He wakes each morning to work out on a treadmill, joking that he’s always looking for a spotter to catch him if he falls.
“I feel good,” he said. “My heart feels fine, and I hope it gets going a little bit on Saturday as they come down toward that finish line.”
Though he often espouses an unsentimental view of his work — “My job is to work for the owners, who are trying to reach a very expensive piece of real estate” he said — Baffert’s health scare and the close association of the horse to his son have given this week a different feeling. The colt got his name more by accident than through an actual tie to Baffert’s only son with his wife, Jill. He suggested his son’s nickname as a place-holder when owner Ahmed Zayat asked for a suggestion only because someone had just walked by and said it.
It stuck, and now Baffert’s next chance at moving into a three-way tie for second place on the list of most Kentucky Derby wins has special meaning.
“Winning the Kentucky Derby, that’s the sort of memory that doesn’t really fade,” Baffert said. “But we need to update that memory a little bit.”
Baffert also won the second leg of the Triple Crown, the Preakness at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore, after each of his first-place Derby finishes. But Silver Charm (1997) and Real Quiet (1998) finished second at the Belmont, while War Emblem stumbled out of the gate and finished eighth.
Baffert has earned a reputation for pushing his horses and building to the six-week Triple Crown chase, which has not been successfully navigated since Affirmed did it in 1978. As with pitchers in baseball, there’s considerable debate about whether training builds stamina in a colt or saps it. Bodemeister clearly extended himself in Arkansas; there’s fear he’ll “bounce” and be unable to find the force needed down the stretch.
Todd Pletcher, another of the country’s most successful trainers, prefers to have his horses fresh going into the Derby. He’ll saddle El Padrino and undefeated Gemologist but believes the Michael Matz-trained colt Union Rags has shown himself as the best horse.
“I think Union Rags is still the horse to beat,” he said.
“History tells us that you can’t throw anyone out. There have been some winners the past few years that have been way down everybody’s depth charts.”
Animal Kingdom roared across the line first last year after being a 20-1 shot. Trainer Graham Motion credits good racing luck with allowing a strong horse to have a shot but also said bad luck hurt Animal Kingdom’s chances in the Preakness, where he finished a close second, and Belmont.
“People say we need to change the Triple Crown because no one has won it,” said Motion, who has another 20-1 shot, Went the Day Well, in this year’s Derby. “There’s a reason. It’s become much more competitive, and every time they run one of these races, it’s a full field and it’s much harder to do it. You need so much racing luck.”
Larger fields and the increasingly popular practice of brining horses who skipped the Derby to Pimlico or Belmont Park has made that luck harder to find. It will take the right horse, Motion said.
“Look, someone is going to win the Triple Crown,” Motion said. “Nothing needs to be changed.”
One horse will take the first step toward becoming the 12th Triple Crown runner by out-running or weaving through a touted field. “Only history will tell how good the current crop of 3-year-olds is,” Motion said, but the weight of the past shouldn’t be seen as an impassable blockade. Animal Kingdom became the first horse to win the Kentucky Derby in his first time running on dirt.
“To say it’s not feasible for Bodemeister to [win] would be naive,” Motion said. “History can be changed, depending on the horse.”