This is not American Pharoah or Justify, the majestic champions Baffert brought to Baltimore on the way to Triple Crowns in 2015 and 2018.
“Improbable, he’s a really good horse, but he’s gotten beat in his last three outings,” the Hall of Fame trainer said Thursday afternoon, moments after he’d arrived at Pimlico Race Course to check on the chestnut colt. “I liked coming in here with Pharoah and Justify, believe me. It’s a lot more fun.”
Baffert, 66, has won the Preakness seven times, tied with 19th century trainer R. Wyndham Walden for the most in history. But he’ll be the first to tell you he won those races because he came to Pimlico with the best horses.
“I think he’s one of the best horses,” he said of Improbable, a 5-2 favorite in the morning line for Saturday’s race. “I’ve come in here before feeling like I really had it over them. But this one, he’s a nice horse who needs to improve. … I don’t feel like he’s a favorite’s favorite kind of horse. He’s just one of the top horses, and they’ve got to make somebody the favorite.”
Baffert’s muted confidence speaks to the nature of the 2019 Preakness, which lacks a defining star but features a difficult-to-handicap field that could deliver an exciting race. For the first time since 1996, there’s no Kentucky Derby winner to pursue the second leg of the Triple Crown. For the first time since 1951, none of the first four horses to cross the finish line in the Derby will run at Pimlico.
“What we have here is a lot of parity,” Baffert said. “I think that’s why it’s a bigger field.”
Improbable is the only horse in the group of 13 to have won a Grade 1 stakes, and he’s consistently run well against the best competition. But the hard truth is he’s finished fourth, second and second in his past three starts.
In the Kentucky Derby, where he went off as the favorite, he never broke free from a crowd of horses jumbled behind the leaders.
“He gave us a thrill turning for home,” said Elliott Walden, president and CEO of WinStar Farm, which co-owns Improbable with the China Horse Club and Starlight Racing. “I thought when he tipped out, he was going to win. But it looked to me like he got bogged down in the mud. Just his whole stride wasn’t him. He’s got such a beautiful stride normally.”
When Baffert was asked what he likes most about Improbable, he mentioned that stride and the colt’s consistent will to run hard.
“He’s a beautiful moving horse; he just floats over the ground,” he said. “His weakness is that he gets a little stirred up.”
He was referring to the tantrum Improbable threw before entering the starting gate for the Arkansas Derby. He still battled Omaha Beach to the finish in that April 13 race.
Baffert’s assistant, Jimmy Barnes, schooled Improbable in the Pimlico starting gate Thursday, hoping to avert any pre-race skittishness Saturday.
In hopes of shaking up the formula, Baffert replaced Improbable’s Derby rider, Irad Ortiz Jr., with his go-to jockey, 53-year-old Mike Smith. Their fruitful partnership climaxed last year when Smith rode Justify to the Triple Crown.
Heading into this year’s Derby, Smith chose to ride Omaha Beach over any of Baffert’s three entrants. That choice proved unlucky when Omaha Beach had to be scratched three days before the race.
Now, the team behind Justify is back together, with the same ownership group to boot.
“We’re trying to spark any kind of magic we can,” Baffert said. “The thing about Mike, he’s always liked this horse, and he’s seen him run. We’ve had a lot of luck together.”
Smith said when Improbable is at his best, he evokes great champions such as Secretariat or Justify. He simply never reached that form in the Derby, even when Ortiz put him in position to stalk the lead.
“I know if I can get him happy, he’s going to run big,” Smith said on a conference call last week. “I just got to find that place.”
Improbable is favored in part because of Baffert, who’s as good as any trainer in history at preparing his horses for the Triple Crown series.
“He recruits well, but that in of itself does not guarantee anything in our game,” said six-time Preakness-winning trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who will saddle Market King for Saturday’s race. “There’s a lot of guys getting good horses, but you’ve got to know what to do with them and be able to manage them. It’s the same as coaching football or basketball; there are some great players who never reach their potential because they’re mismanaged or misplaced. But Bob is a master at placing his horses. He’s arguably the best trainer in the world and when he shows up, you say, ‘OK, circle that one.’ ”