The day after he finished a disappointing sixth in the Kentucky Derby, Lookin At Lucky was exhausted. The chestnut colt laid down in his stall, hardly touched his food, and barely moved. He looked like he had just lost a heavyweight title fight in the 15th round.
Just entering the 135th running of the Preakness Stakes at that point felt, to trainer Bob Baffert, like fool's errand. Talk of winning it seemed laughable. Even if he did recover in time for the race, Baffert privately told his wife, Jill, he was going to scratch Lookin At Lucky if he drew the rail post position like he did in the Derby. Horse racing, for all its attention to detail, often comes down to luck. And despite his name, Lookin At Lucky seemed almost entirely devoid of good fortune.
Yet there was Lookin At Lucky Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, sitting in perfect position for the first time in two months, surging to the lead as he came around the final turn. Super Saver, the Kentucky Derby winner, was laboring badly, and the early pace-setter in the race, First Dude, was struggling to hang on.
With a few swings of the whip, jockey Martin Garcia asked Lookin At Lucky to find that extra gear, and the 95,760 in attendance watched as the horse with the most talent in the race proved that if given a fair trip, no one on the track could beat him to the wire. Garcia raised his arms in triumph and Baffert began hugging everyone in sight.
Lookin At Lucky, who went off as the co-favorite, paid $6.80 for the win. First Dude ($16.60) hung on for second, while Jackson Bend ($6.60) rallied to finish third. Super Saver, the Kentucky Derby winner, faded badly at the end and finished eighth, meaning another year has passed without a Triple Crown, a feat no horse has accomplished since Affirmed in 1978.
The victory was the ninth for Baffert in the Triple Crown series, but his first since 2002, when he won the Preakness with War Emblem. It was his fifth Preakness win.
"I know it's been a few years," Baffert said. "This is a different kind of win. This was more of a redemption win. This horse is such a warrior. I wanted it for the horse because he tries so hard every time. He had those rough trips, but he came back."
It was the kind of performance that almost everyone -- but especially Baffert -- was expecting from Lookin At Lucky this year. A champion as a 2-year-old, he looked like he might be Baffert's most talented horse since Point Given in 2001. But plenty of doubts surfaced when he nearly crashed in the Santa Anita Derby, and then got bounced off the rail twice in the Kentucky Derby, a miserable stretch that led to a bold decision by Baffert. He decided to remove jockey Garrett Gomez, the leading rider in the country, and hand the mount to Garcia, a 25-year-old with little big race experience.
"I told him Tuesday I was going to make a jockey change and Martin looks at me and goes 'Really? Wow. You made my day.' " Baffert said. "I told him he needed the experience because he was going to be riding in a lot of these for me. I was trying to downplay it, telling him there was no pressure on him and he had nothing to lose. He goes 'Nothing to lose? We're going to win it!' "
It was a typically audacious Baffert move, but the kind that usually pays off for him. Garcia, who was born in Veracruz, Mexico, didn't even have his jockey license until five years ago. He came to the United States in 2003 and was working at Chicago's Metropolitan Deli in Pleasanton, Calif., when the owner, Teri Terry, got him into horse racing. That eventually led to a connection with Baffert. Now he's emerging as one of the best young riders in the country.
"He's got a gift like all the great ones," Baffert said. "He really fits my horses well. He reminds me a lot of [Hall of Famer] Gary Stevens. I have confidence in him, and he knows I have confidence in him."
Trainer Todd Pletcher had that kind of confidence in jockey Calvin Borel, who helped Pletcher end an 0-for-24 streak two weeks ago in the Kentucky Derby aboard Super Saver. And Borel had Super Saver in good position Saturday, laying second off First Dude, who surged to the early lead. But when Borel called for Super Saver to make his move along with Lookin At Lucky, the Derby winner had nothing to give.
"You could see that Calvin was squeezing and asking him to go get that horse," Pletcher said. "He just couldn't do it. He hung in there. He kept fighting. He tried hard."
Pletcher brushed off questions about it, but Super Saver didn't seem himself, even prior to the race. In the paddock, after getting his saddle strapped on his back, he got a tad spooked by the rowdy fans, and had to be calmed by Pletcher and Elliott Walden, the racing manager of WinStar Farms. But Pletcher didn't want to dwell on the Preakness result.
"I wouldn't trade the Derby for anything," Pletcher said. "We got the one we wanted the most."
Baffert, in some respects, might have won the race he wanted the most as well. He admitted that after Lookin At Lucky drew the No. 1 post position at the Derby, he felt "empty" all week and couldn't get excited about the race. But this week at Pimlico, he was far more relaxed, cracking jokes and telling stories in his typical way. Success came almost appeared to come too easily for Baffert when he first started training horses, as he won eight Triple Crown races over a six-year span. But the eight-year drought that followed was a bit humbling for a man who often annoyed people with his self confidence early in his career.
"You can't put a price on the feeling of winning," Baffert said. "It's unbelievable. It's like winning a gold medal."
As he walked to the winner's circle, Baffert scooped up his 3-year-old son, Bode, and plopped him down next to the massive silver trophy awarded to the winner. Bode Baffert seemed overwhelmed by the moment, and ran back into the arms of his mother. Baffert remained non-committal about sending Lookin At Lucky on to the Belmont, but Jill Baffert was adamant that their son -- who she says has missed 52 days of pre-school while traveling with his parents to watch races this year -- would not be going.
"I think it means a lot to Bob [to have Bode here]," said Jill Baffert, who married Baffert after he was divorced from his first wife. "Because this is kind of his second chance at fatherhood, to be honest with you. When he had his first kids, he was trying to make a living and have a career. I think right now, this means a lot."
Vindication and redemption seemed to be a theme Saturday. For a legendary trainer and a talented horse, good fortune was suddenly all around.
Update: Baffert said this morning that Lookin At Lucky would not run in the Belmont Stakes on June 5.