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Horse Racing

Kentucky Derby pressure? Bob Baffert wouldn't have it any other way.

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Every time he brings a top contender to the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert offers a discourse on pressure — that gnawing tension he feels when he has to get a horse, invested with so many dollars and so many hopes, to the starting gate for the most scrutinized race in North America.

You might think Baffert would shrug off his unease after five career Derby victories and two Triple Crowns in the last four years. But he says it’s always roiling behind those signature sunglasses, and the truth is, the 66-year-old trainer finds the sensation intoxicating.

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“Never gets old,” he said Thursday, as he greeted waves of reporters and well-wishers outside his familiar Barn 33 at Churchill Downs.

Is the pressure greater when all his ambitions ride on one mighty animal, as was the case with Justify last year? Or is it actually magnified when he has three top contenders?

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That’s Baffert’s story this year as he tries to tie Ben Jones for the most trainer wins in Derby history. With former morning-line favorite Omaha Beach scratched from the field, the most famous trainer in the sport now has the top three betting choices headed into Saturday’s 145th running of the race.

“It’s a different feeling when you have one horse,” he said. “We’re spreading it out this year.”

Game Winner, Improbable and Roadster do not draw the same awed statements from Baffert as his Triple Crown winners, American Pharoah and Justify. But together, they represent quite a hand.

When Baffert has multiple Derby contenders, he will often tip careful listeners to which one he thinks is best. This time around, he’s been more circumspect.

If we think of the three horses in terms of human siblings, Game Winner is the first son. The thickly built bay colt beat his stablemates to the national stage when he won the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in November, and he always gives a good effort.

Improbable is the chestnut middle son, thought by some to be the most promising 3-year-old in the 2019 class but fussy and undermined on race day by his seeming lack of focus.

Roadster is the gray baby, rated by many in Baffert’s barn to be the most gifted of the three last summer, then derailed by throat surgery before he re-emerged to upset Game Winner in the Santa Anita Derby on April 6.

Baffert speaks of Game Winner, the 9-2 morning-line favorite despite the fact that he’s finished second in both his 2019 starts, with the most assurance.

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“Game Winner is a champion,” the white-haired trainer said simply. “He’s always right there and has never run a bad race.”

He described the 2-year-old champion’s running style as “like a fullback.” But jockey Joel Rosario will have to avoid the wide trips that cost Game Winner in his two narrow defeats this year.

When it comes to 5-1 co-second choice Improbable, Baffert often sounds as if he’s discussing a reform-school case.

“He can be a little bit feisty,” he said. “He’s got a little bigger engine on him; he gets excited a little bit, but that’s him.”

Improbable won all three of his starts as a 2-year-old, including the Grade 1 Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity. But he faced questions about his focus, because he tended to look around and cock his head during workouts. Those questions gained steam after Long Range Toddy caught him in their division of the March 16 Rebel Stakes. Then he became agitated trying to enter the starting gate for the April 13 Arkansas Derby and failed to outduel Omaha Beach.

That said, he still ran well in both those races, the second in muddy conditions that might be repeated Saturday at Churchill Downs. And he’s backed by the same group — WinStar Farm, China Horse Club and Starlight Racing — that owned Justify.

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“He has a tremendous stride and great way of moving, similar to Justify,” said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of the racing division of WinStar Farm. “He gets over the ground really well. That’s always beneficial in a race like the Kentucky Derby because of the distance and the demands of the race being a mile and a quarter, and just being able to get in that rhythm and get into that stride hopefully will prove beneficial.”

Improbable lost his most recent rider, Jose Ortiz, to fellow contender Tacitus. But Irad Ortiz Jr., Jose’s brother, picked up the mount, choosing Improbable over several other possibilities.

Roadster, meanwhile, did not race for six months after he finished third in the Sept. 3 Del Mar Futurity. He was also out of training for half that time because of surgery to remove an obstruction in his throat that was limiting airflow. He returned, victorious, in an allowance race at Santa Anita Park on March 1. But his entire chance to qualify for the Derby came down to the Santa Anita Derby on April 6, when he chased down Game Winner.

Given that victory and the general respect for contenders from California, Baffert thought Roadster might have been the Derby favorite if jockey Mike Smith had opted to stay on him. Instead, Smith chose Omaha Beach. Florent Geroux will ride Roadster on Saturday.

Unknown potential is part of the allure with the gray colt, who has raced just four times, one more than Justify had at this time last year. “I don’t know how good Roadster is,” Baffert said. “We don’t know if he’s got other gears. What he did was pretty impressive, coming in off a layoff and reeling off two wins. But we don’t know.”

Baffert has done his best to keep the bullseye off his contenders this week. He’s talked about how little separates the top five or six horses in the race, comparing it to 1997 (when feisty Silver Charm gave him his first Derby win). He’s said Florida Derby winner Maximum Security should be the favorite based on speed figures. He’s deflected questions about tying Jones, who dominated the sport in the 1940s and early 1950s,

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“I’m a day-to-day kind of guy,” Baffert said. “I always go into these races, expect the worst, hope for the best because if you get too excited, you have a letdown. This game will … you’ve got to be careful with it. I’m already prepared for a beating, so if we win, it’s exciting.”

It’s a variation of a line he’s used for years, certainly since his heart attack in 2012, which came during a 13-year drought between Derby victories.

But the carnival atmosphere around Baffert’s barn is a constant reminder of the place he occupies at the center of his sport. From former NBA standout Avery Johnson to a fan who handed Baffert a wooden cross Wednesday, you never know who’s going to show up.

Baffert could hide from it, but he stands outside until the last question is asked, the last photograph snapped. He cannot quit this stage or the pressure that comes with it.


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