LOUISVILLE — The Kentucky Derby is the one race people all over the world recognize, whether they follow horse racing or not. It is the race that everyone in the horse industry wants to win, but it is also the most difficult. The race is restricted to 3-year-olds, limited to 20 horses, and each horse has to earn its way into the race based on points attained in specified Kentucky Derby prep races.
If things don’t go well, you can’t just try again next year. The process starts over and, for some, they may get the opportunity again next year, but for others it may take several years. The Derby can provide the highest highs or the lowest lows.
Trainer Bob Baffert is a Hall of Fame trainer with an extensive resume. He has won the Kentucky Derby five times in 29 attempts — Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002), American Pharoah (2015) and Justify (2018). Only one other trainer, Ben Jones, has won more editions of the Kentucky Derby; from 1938 to 1952, Jones won six.
Baffert has won countless top races and, of course, he became the first trainer in 37 years to win the Triple Crown when American Pharoah won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont in 2015. Three years later when Justify did the same, Baffert became the second trainer ever to accomplish the feat twice, Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons the other.
For as easy as it may seem for Baffert, he knows that he breathes rarified air and does not take the opportunity to be in the Kentucky Derby for granted.
“I just think about enjoying the moment, enjoy it right now,” said Baffert. “I’m a day-by-day kind of guy and I always go into these races ‘expect the worst, hope for the best,’ because if you get too excited, the let-down is so … you know, this game will defeat you. You have to be careful of all the disappointments. I’m always prepared when they come out of the gates for a beating, so if we win, it’s exciting.”
Baffert will start three horses in the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby: Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster and runner-up Game Winner, as well as Arkansas Derby runner-up Improbable.
“Right now, I’m really fortunate that I’m here with three horses,” said Baffert. “It’s so hard to get here and we’ve been spoiled the last few years with the horses we’ve brought here. To me it’s a challenge, it’s very challenging. The challenge is what keeps us going.”
Trainer Richard Mandella is also a Hall of Fame trainer, but he is seeking his first Kentucky Derby win and knows too well the challenges it poses. It looked like Mandella was poised to get his Derby win until fate took his path in another direction just days before Saturday’s race.
Late Wednesday it was announced that Grade II Rebel Stakes and Arkansas Derby winner Omaha Beach would scratch from the Kentucky Derby due to an entrapped epiglottis. The horse had surgery Thursday to correct the issue, but will be sidelined a few weeks and forced to miss the Triple Crown series.
“The Kentucky Derby is what everybody knows,” said Mandella at a press conference Thursday morning. “So everybody has that dream to win it, but horsemen care for their animals and we don’t always get the warning and things happen. But horsemen look for the warning signs and don’t want to do the wrong thing. As broken-hearted as I was yesterday, I’d be a lot worse than that had I run him and he ran up the race track and I’d be kicking myself forever and asking, ‘Why did I do this?’ So we all live with that as horse trainers.”
Trainer Bill Mott was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame in 1998 and has a resume of accomplishments and notable horses like Breeders’ Cup winners Cigar, Royal Delta and Drosselmeyer, but has yet to attain the elusive Kentucky Derby win. Mott has saddled eight starters in the Kentucky Derby, his most recent being last year’s seventh-place finisher Hofburg. It was Mott’s best placing in his eight attempts and first appearance in the race in nine years.
“I guess it’s been elusive, but it’s nothing we’ve been worried about because the thing is, if we don’t win this year, you know what’s going to happen? We’ll come back next year and I’m going to try it again,” said Mott. “We’re glad we’re here, we’re glad we’re running and if this year is the year, it would be great.”
On Saturday, Mott will send out Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, along with Country House, who finished third in the Arkansas Derby behind Omaha Beach and Improbable.
Tacitus, a son of 2014 Eclipse champion Close Hatches whom Mott also trained, was a late bloomer and didn’t really figure things out until late in his 2-year-old season. In two starts this year, he not only won the Wood, but also the Tampa Bay Derby and may be Mott’s best chance at the Kentucky Derby trophy.
“We’ve been in there a few times, but hopefully right now we’ve got the best contenders that we’ve had,” said Mott. “I guess every time you run one you hope this is the one, but I guess if you take the realistic view of it, and really analyze it, this is the best pair we’ve had.”
For all the glories the Kentucky Derby holds, it can also throw out some painful punches. Competing in the Kentucky Derby is difficult in so many ways, which may make winning it just that much sweeter.