LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Bob Baffert has little doubt who should be the favorite in the Kentucky Derby.
The Hall of Fame trainer says Wood Memorial winner Eskendereya is “a star” and “the horse to beat.”
All of which suits Baffert just fine. He’ll happily test his luck with Lookin At Lucky.
The 3-year-old colt has won Baffert over with his toughness, a quality that will be in high demand when 20 horses head to the starting gate for next weekend’s Run for the Roses.
“He’s not going to be intimidated by a lot of horses,” Baffert said. “He’s had a great mind since day one, the first time I ran him.”
Lookin At Lucky showed that grit during the worst performance of his career in the Santa Anita Derby three weeks ago. Despite a nightmarish trip that left Baffert momentarily steamed at jockey Garrett Gomez, Lookin At Lucky got up for third.
Not bad for a horse Baffert felt was finished, or maybe even injured, after seeing him check up early in the race. Baffert was so disgusted he stopped watching the race and joked that he was thankful there were no microphones in the general vicinity.
“I thought, ‘This is it,'” Baffert said. “I’ve got my silver bullet just trying to get around and all that happens.”
Gomez and Baffert have patched things up and Gomez will ride the horse in the Derby.
The Santa Anita Derby may have been a blessing of sorts.
If Lookin At Lucky had somehow run down eventual winner Sidney’s Candy, he may have gone off as the Derby favorite. Now, all the attention — and the pressure — will be on Eskendereya and trainer Todd Pletcher, who is 0-for-24 in the Derby.
“I don’t think anybody’s looking around for Looking At Lucky,” said Baffert, who also trains Derby entry Conveyance. “Everybody is going to be worried about their own horse.”
Baffert knows what he has in Lookin At Lucky. The colt was the male 2-year-old champion last year following a campaign that featured wins in the Delmar Futurity, the Norfolk Stakes and the Cash Call Futurity as well as a close second-place finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
The horse proved he wasn’t just a synthetic surface specialist either thanks to a game victory in the Rebel Stakes on the dirt at Oaklawn Park, when he edged Noble’s Promise by a head.
In fact, Baffert thinks Lookin At Lucky prefers the dirt over synthetics. He certainly looked comfortable during a five-furlong work at Churchill Downs on Wednesday, when he covered the distance in a crisp 59.60 seconds. Baffert says he’s been “tantalized” by his horse’s ability on the dirt.
“He’s not a synthetic horse,” Baffert said. “He ran well on it because he’s a really good horse, and that’s the main thing.”
One that’s still growing. Lookin At Lucky won’t even turn 3 until May and is in the midst of a growth spurt.
Which could make Lookin At Lucky be a more viable Derby prospect than Pioneerof the Nile, whom Baffert saddled in last year’s Derby. The horse finished second on a muddy track, but was merely a bystander as long shot Mine That Bird roared to victory.
Baffert admits it took him awhile to figure out how Mine That Bird prevented him from becoming the fourth trainer to win at least four Derbys, but allows that Lookin At Lucky may be better fit for what’s in store on Derby Day.
Though Lookin At Lucky hasn’t been nearly as dominant as Eskendereya, who has won his last two races by a combined 18¼ lengths, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
Lookin At Lucky is a grinder. His biggest margin of victory in any race is 1¾ lengths and he appears to have little trouble dealing with traffic.
Good thing, because there’ll be plenty of it next Saturday.
Yet Baffert has been around long enough to know that it takes more than a mature horse to win the Derby. He hasn’t entered the Winner’s Circle in the Derby since 2002, a lifetime considering he won his three Derbys in a six-year stretch between 1997-98.
Will the streak end next Saturday? Maybe. Baffert’s here with a horse that has all the qualities a Derby winner needs. Asking for anything more would just be greedy.
“You want to bring a good horse here and you want him to run, to show up for the Derby,” Baffert said. “If he shows up, that’s all you can ask for.”