Rob Bailes has been around horses all his life.
His father, Mert, saddled J.R.'s Horizon (ninth) in the 1990 Preakness, and his grandfather Bob was the farm manager and a trainer at Meadow Farm in Virginia and the first rider to get on Secretariat's back.
Rob Bailes, who has unsung Mint Slewlep in Saturday's Preakness field, is already familiar with the Triple Crown series, having saddled Scrappy T in the 2005 Preakness and come away with a surprising second place behind Afleet Alex.
"My dad pretty much taught me everything I know," said Bailes, 42. "I try not to give him credit for the bad things I do. He was a very good conditioner of racehorses, and probably the most important thing he taught me was you don't train every horse the same.
"Each one is an individual, and your job as a trainer is to try to figure out what they want. I've spent my whole life listening to horses."
Now, he has his ear cocked to Mint Slewlep, a 3-year-old son of Slew City Slew (sired by Seattle Slew), who first caught his eye at last year's Ocala Breeders' Sale. He bought the horse for $200,000 for Virginian Marshall Dowell, who has been his client for more than 15 years, and who also owned Scrappy T, and has been training him at his Bowie Training Center stables since.
But Bailes said he isn't yet sure how good Mint Slewlep is. The brown colt has run three times this year, winning an allowance race at Laurel Park and finishing fifth in the Grade III Gotham Stakes and fourth in the Grade III Withers Stakes.
"He doesn't have as much experience as Scrappy T had when he ran in the Preakness," Bailes said, "and I really believed Scrappy T was one of the top 3-year-olds in the country - though others didn't.
"This colt, I don't know yet. He has a lot of talent, but he has had trouble, trouble, trouble on every trip. Even in the Withers, in a [seven-horse] field, he had a bad trip. But, right now, he's training well and he's doing as good as I think I can make him. ... He'll have to be at the top of his game against these other Preakness horses. Right now, I'm in the blind. I don't know how good he is."
The task for Mint Slewlep and the rest of the Preakness field got harder yesterday when trainer Nick Zito confirmed that C P West, second in the Withers, will run. And it may become even harder today if trainer Todd Pletcher follows through on his inclination to enter Circular Quay, the sixth-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby.
"I worked him [yesterday] morning with the Preakness in the back of my mind," said Pletcher, who already plans to run King of the Roxy. "I'll talk to Mr. Tabor [owner Michael Tabor] and we'll make a decision."
Circular Quay had an eight-week layoff before the Derby and worked well yesterday morning.
"It was a very good work," said Mark Shuman, who trains Preakness entry Xchanger. "For coming off the Derby nine days ago and coming up on the Preakness in five days, I hope it tired his horse out. I hope we've got a lot of tired horses coming in here, because mine's rested. It's the equalizing factor.
"But mostly what Pletcher deciding to bring Circular Quay here means to me is that he doesn't have a lot of confidence in King of the Roxy."
Shuman also learned yesterday that he'll definitely have jockey Ramon Dominguez riding Xchanger because trainer Michael Matz decided he will enter Chelokee in the Barbaro Stakes, named for the late 2006 Kentucky Derby winner also trained by Matz.
The Barbaro, formerly the Sir Barton Stakes, is just part of the Maryland Jockey Club's plan to honor the horse. Thursday morning, Barbaro's jockey, Edgar Prado, and his surgeon, Dr. Dean Richardson, will receive the Special Award of Merit during the annual Alibi Breakfast at Pimlico Race Course. And, on Saturday, Barbaro's owners, Roy and Gretchen Jackson, and their Lael Stables will be honored before the Barbaro Stakes.
While that is going on, Rob Bailes will be with Mint Slewlep hoping for that so-far-elusive good trip.