Bob Baffert, trainer of War Emblem, the Derby winner, and D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Proud Citizen, the Derby runner-up, stunned the racing world nine days ago at Churchill Downs. Baffert won the 128th Derby with a horse he had trained for less than a month, and Lukas finished second with a horse who garnered more publicity for his patriotic stirrings (Proud Citizen's dam is Drums Of Freedom) than for his athletic ability.
Shame on the racing world. It should have known better.
Both trainers and their horses are headed to Baltimore for a rematch Saturday in the 127th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Until they load War Emblem and Proud Citizen onto a van Wednesday for a ride to the airport and then a flight to Maryland, Baffert and Lukas are preparing their horses here at Churchill Downs for the second leg of the Triple Crown.
Oddly, Lukas seems more confident about Proud Citizen than Baffert does about War Emblem. War Emblem enjoyed an uncontested lead in the Derby, set a moderate pace and drew off for an impressive four-length victory.
Baffert says that scenario probably won't unfold at Pimlico, where a little speed horse named Booklet will probably harass War Emblem early. War Emblem has won his past three races with no early harassment. In his two races before that, however, the nearly black colt encountered an early challenger and wilted down the stretch.
"With Booklet in there, we'll find out what we're made of," Baffert says. "He'll take some of the starch out of us. But I can't change the way my horse runs. If he gets there, he gets there."
Baffert pauses and says, almost under his breath: "This race will probably set up for Lukas."
In the late 1990s, Baffert, the upstart high-profile trainer, and Lukas, the veteran high-profile trainer, seemed to think there wasn't room at the top for both of them. They occasionally traded snipes, and you got the impression they didn't much like each other.
Now, when Lukas talks about experience as a key to success in the spring classics, he includes Baffert in that rank.
"I think the bigger the event, the more experience comes into play," Lukas says. "If you've been in the arena and fought the battle, you pretty much know what it takes to get there."
With Proud Citizen, Lukas says, he knew what he had - a horse who flashed promise last year at 2, underwent surgery in October for removal of a bone spur in his left front knee and then progressed with no setbacks.
Lukas did the unthinkable (except for Lukas). He ran Proud Citizen in the Santa Anita Derby, one of the toughest races for 3-year-olds, off a seven-month layoff. The colt finished seventh.
But that, Lukas says now, was a prep for the Lexington Stakes, which Proud Citizen won going away, which was a prep for the Kentucky Derby. That unorthodox method was seen by many as Lukas' obsession with this country's premier race.
And what's this? Lukas says the Kentucky Derby was a prep for the Preakness?
"We probably needed the Derby as much as anybody did," Lukas says. "That was only his third race this year. I think he's got a chance to move up in the Preakness."
As for Baffert, he knew, too, what he had, although he kept quiet about it. He says now he didn't hype War Emblem because he didn't want opposing trainers and jockeys taking him seriously.
Baffert's strategy was to fly under the radar, as he puts it, and hope that everyone overlooked War Emblem. Everyone did, and Baffert claimed his third Derby.
He says that, after the race, his brother Bill phoned their father, 79, whom they call "Chief," at home in Arizona. Baffert relates the exchange.
Bill: "There's a warrant out for Bob's arrest."
Bill: "For stealing the Kentucky Derby."
Baffert says his brother and parents are coming to the Preakness. His parents have never been, but have always wanted to, he says.
"All I know is we're going to laugh and have a good time," Baffert says. "The Preakness is my favorite of the three legs. It's the most relaxing."
The white-haired trainer makes no secret that his No. 1 race is the Derby. He seems satisfied and willing to accept whatever the outcome of the Preakness. At the same time, he's watching War Emblem develop into what he says is possibly the best horse he's ever trained.
All he knew when one of his major clients, the Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, bought War Emblem 3 1/2 weeks before the Derby was that the horse was fast. Once Baffert got him into his barn, he discovered the horse was also mean, unruly and potentially self-destructive.
Baffert adjusted War Emblem's equipment, including bits, so his riders could better control him. He changed the colt's feed. He prescribed medicine to help War Emblem's ankles, which, Baffert says, apparently contain minute bone chips.
He stood him in the starting gate and walked him through the paddock. He assigned his fiancee, Jill Moss, the task of befriending the temperamental horse.
"He was a hateful son of a gun," Baffert says. "I told Jill, 'I've got a job for you. You've got to turn this guy into a sweetheart.' "
She fed him carrots and mints. She talked sweetly to him, eventually talking him into letting her pet him. Now, you've still got to watch him; he'll bite, Baffert says. But he's learning to put his energy into his work.
Those are things you do automatically if you're experienced and know what you're doing, Baffert says. And he includes Lukas in that rank.
"You know what else?" Baffert says, referring to the short break between the Derby and Preakness. "We know how to get a horse back in two weeks."
At a glance
What:127th Preakness Stakes, second leg of thoroughbred horse racing's Triple Crown
Where: Pimlico Race Course
Post time: 6:04 p.m.
Distance: 1 3/16 miles
Purse: $1 million
Bob Baffert and D. Wayne Lukas, whose horses finished first and second in the Kentucky Derby and will race next in the Preakness, have won 20 Triple Crown races between them, including 17 of the past 24. Here are the trainers' winners in the Triple Crown:
'97...Silver Charm...Derby, Preakness
'01...Point Given...Preakness, Belmont
'94...Tabasco Cat...Preakness, Belmont
'95...Thunder Gulch...Derby, Belmont
...... Timber Country...Preakness