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At a Derby without Bob Baffert, rookies and grinders and stories abound

The Kentucky Derby is scheduled for Saturday in Louisville. (Jamie Rhodes/USA Today Sports)

LOUISVILLE — Here’s the Baffert-less Kentucky Derby, abounding with possibilities even in its Baffert-lessness.

The traditional hubbub around Bob Baffert’s Barn 33 at Churchill Downs has yielded to anti-hubbub. The famed trainer is away on suspension after the pharmaceutical fumble last year with apparent winner Medina Spirit. The event lacks the winning trainer of a whopping four of the previous seven editions — no, wait, make that three of seven, given Medina Spirit’s disqualification. Baffert saddled 34 Derby horses across the previous 26 occasions starting in 1996, so a wizened eye might think it briefly sees him over there.

It does not.

Other people have storylines.

Trainer Todd Pletcher has his Derby entries Nos. 60, 61 and 62 since 2000; he’s such a mainstay around here as to be pretty much a third spire. (He has Wood Memorial winner Mo Donegal on the rail.) Trainer Steve Asmussen, winner of just about every other big thing from here to Dubai, tries again with Derby horse No. 24 since 2001, hoping second-favorite Epicenter will exceed Fifty Stars, Private Emblem, Quintons Gold Rush, Storm Treasure, Private Vow, Curlin, Zanjero, Pyro, Z Fortune, Nehro, Daddy Nose Best, Sabercat, Tapiture, Gun Runner, Creator, Lookin At Lee, Hence, Untrapped, Combatant, Long Range Toddy, Max Player, Midnight Bourbon and Super Stock.

Well, two of those guys (Nehro, Lookin At Lee) did finish second.

Well, it’s a hellish damned race.

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Twenty colts will run for 14 trainers, five of them Derby rookies, including world travelers Koichi Shintani of Japan (Crown Pride) and the UAE-based Bhupat Seemar of India (Summer Is Tomorrow). Ten trainers seek a first Derby win. Brad Cox (Cyberknife, Tawny Port, Zozos) does not, but it might feel as if he does because his Mandaloun ascended the board nine months after the wire and upon Medina Spirit’s disqualification. Germany-raised, California-based 56-year-old rookie Tim Yakteen, a Baffert assistant up until 2004, has two hopefuls who used to run for Baffert until late March (Messier, Taiba).

D. Wayne Lukas has Derby horse No. 50 (Ethereal Road), and as Lukas exited the track on a horse Wednesday morning, it grew clear that seeing an 86-year-old man on a horse is even better than seeing an 85-year-old man on a horse.

The early favorite, Zandon, runs for trainer Chad Brown, who is half Lukas’s age and embodies the long struggle this beast of a race can present. He has a fine Derby record from his six previous entries — fourth with Normandy Invasion in 2013, fifth with Practical Joke in 2017, second with Good Magic in 2018 — but the mean old stats just sneer 6-0-1-0 (for races, firsts, seconds, thirds).

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“You see those stats sometimes with Derby or Breeders’ Cups and such, and they can sort of stack up on you, quick,” he said in his quiet office. “But this is the toughest arena to win it, and sometimes you’re running multiple horses in the race, so it kind of skews the record a bit and such.

“So you know, for us, we haven’t made as many starts. I try not to bring the horses unless I think I have a real shot. I have a bigger mix of horses in my barn, a lot of turf horses in my barn so immediately they’re not eligible to run. You know, I have a lot of fillies in my barn, generally not the ones you want to bring here; it takes a rare filly to run in the Derby, let alone be successful to win. So I still have a lot of dirt colts to work with. Nobody’s going to take out a collection for me, feel bad for me. But it’s just, it’s a percentage of my overall barn.”

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In his contemplative approach, he sounded rather like another trainer at another Derby in another office: Shug McGaughey, Brown’s first boss, in 2013, when McGaughey won with Orb. That’s the eccentric contrast of the Derby concept: Some stables — and the moneyed clients of some stables — prioritize this one race more than others.

“You’re not going to find a bunch of turf horses in Steve Asmussen’s or Bob Baffert’s barn,” Brown said. “That’s not what they want to do. That’s not the way their businesses are set up, to my eye. And they have tremendous success in what they’re doing, you know, and that’s what they want to do, and that’s what their clients want to do. For us, we have a different sort of overall portfolio of horses and clients that have maybe different goals throughout the year. And I have to provide service to each horse, each client, and try to meet their goals.”

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His trainee Early Voting, for example, had the points to reach the Derby, but Brown thought it prudent to aim him for the Preakness. If Blue Grass Stakes winner Zandon won, that would bring the occasional reward Derby fate grants to that kind of approach.

If Florida Derby winner White Abarrio won, that might loose a party or two in Barbados.

His gifted 35-year-old trainer, Saffie Joseph Jr., brought both his flowing long brown hair and a Barbadian consciousness to the Derby, on his second venture here, after his Ny Traffic ran eighth in the crowd-less, pandemic-hushed Derby of September 2020. So it’s his first Derby, commotion-wise.

Joseph says he cried tears he wishes everybody could cry after winning the Florida Derby, and as a way of playing Barbados horse-racing tour guide, he pulls out his phone for a video of the 1982 Gold Cup in the Caribbean island country.

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“The track is a smaller track,” he said. “It’s a turf track. It’s six furlongs. But the amazing part of it, the crowd’s so close that you get that feel, like no other track. I don’t know if you could get that close, where the stands is, as far as any track, and I think that gives it a vibrant feel. …

“Sometimes on the big days,” he said, “people are, like, on the track. They started [having them back up] when I was growing up, and obviously they started putting in more safety restrictions, but if you go back and put in old Gold Cup videos …

“See it?” he says of the video. “You have all those crowds — look at that, see those crowds. . . . See that? . . . See on the rails? . . . You can barely see the horse. . . . Look at that.”

If Joseph won a Derby, it would go to a former kid who couldn’t wait for school days to end in Barbados so he could get out to the horses. If Yakteen won, it would go to a longtime grinder who grew up with soccer and running, born to a German mother and Lebanese American military father. With his two former Baffert horses, he has navigated the little Baffert-less storm of attention with succinctness and wit. Speaking of video, Yakteen took one of the cluster of reporters around him, so rare was the experience, and he took advice from his wife, Millie Ball, a TV presenter, “so I don’t look as bad as I can,” he told reporters Monday.

If he won, some would say it’s as if Baffert won, and while that could go debated among the hard-bitten track intellectuals, that would be something for a Baffert-less Derby.

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A beginner’s guide to betting on horse racing: Horse racing can be intimidating to newcomers. This guide will help you navigate the lingo, assist you in evaluating horses and give you the proper tools to enjoy a day at the races.

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Investigation: A years-long effort by the sport’s moneyed elite exposed the underbelly of the industry, paving the way for sweeping reforms. But critics see something different: a move by wealthy and politically connected horsemen to strengthen their hold on the industry.