LOUISVILLE, KY. — Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert is back at Churchill Downs with another solid Kentucky Derby contender in Mor Spirit.
But all anybody wants to talk about is last year.
And Baffert understands. He knows better than anyone that American Pharoah, the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years, was a once-in-a-lifetime horse.
"People keep saying thank you for that horse last year, because he made everybody feel so good about themselves just watching him," Baffert said, holding court outside his traditional Barn 33 on Wednesday morning. " I think Pharoah, being the kind, gentle [horse], I got to share him, people touching him and getting close to him. It was very rare."
Baffert visited his greatest champion Tuesday afternoon at Coolmore's Ashford Stud in Versailles, about an hour east of Louisville. He quickly fell into his old rhythm with American Pharoah, who nipped at him, asking for carrots.
"Then he went and bred a mare and came back and chilled out with us," Baffert said. "He came back and he was no different before he went than after. He just came back and said, 'Hey, I want some more carrots.'"
Baffert recalled the bittersweet days last fall when he prepared American Pharoah for his last race, a smashing victory in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Keeneland.
"It was sort of a sad day for me, that whole week, even the last works I gave him, it was like, this is it," he said. "When I saw him come down the stretch, usually you'd be jumping for joy. But I was just like emotional, like, this is it."
His barn was a quieter place in the weeks after Pharoah retired to stud. Maybe even a little depressing. But Mor Spirit, a less talented horse whose fierce competitiveness matches his name, helped pull Baffert out of his post-Pharoah funk.
And if people want to talk about last year, well, last year was pretty great.
"I was part of something really big in sports history," Baffert said. "I'll never forget the goose bumps I got, the deafening sound when he hit the wire and passed the wire, that I was part of something that big."
One bad day
When Mohaymen pulled alongside Nyquist midway through the Florida Derby, it seemed racing fans might be in for a rare and thrilling preview of the Kentucky Derby.
This is an era when presumed top contenders often stay far apart in the months before they meet at Churchill Downs. Rivalries no longer build the way they did in the days of Affirmed and Alydar.
But here were the top two 3-year-olds, squaring off five weeks before they'd meet in Kentucky.
Nyquist held up his end, winning the race and emerging as a clear Derby favorite. Mohaymen did not, falling back quickly and leaving handicappers with serious questions about his racing heart.
One person who says he never lost faith in Mohaymen is his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin.
"There were several things that happened, and we're just going to draw a line through that race," McLaughlin said Wednesday. "He's doing fabulous since then."
He said Mohaymen went too wide in the Florida Derby after drawing an outside post position and then struggled to make up ground on a wet track.
But McLaughlin has liked everything he's seen from Mohaymen in the weeks since and said the colt delivered his best gallop yet Wednesday morning.
"We're confident," he said. "We've lost no confidence in the horse. He's doing great."
It's easy to forget now, but Mohaymen was the favorite on April 2 in Florida. He had never lost before that day and still carries one of the most impressive records in the Derby field. McLaughlin is betting his talent didn't go anywhere.
Maryland-bred puts on a show
Some horses struggle with the throng of fans who watch morning workouts during Derby week.
Not Cathryn Sophia.
Rather than exit the track after training Wednesday morning, the Maryland-bred co-second choice for Friday's $1 million Kentucky Oaks stopped and performed a few twirls for her admirers.
"That's her," said trainer John Servis. "She didn't want to leave the track."
He added that he'd like to jog her on Thursday morning but she'd probably insist on a gallop.