Baffert, not Zito or Lukas. has a Derby trifecta this year


LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) – For nearly 20 years, three trainers have compiled an incredible record at the Kentucky Derby.

Two are in racing’s Hall of Fame: D. Wayne Lukas, with four Derby wins from a record 42 starters, and Nick Zito, who’s won it twice with 19 starters.

But only one, three-time winner Bob Baffert, has a chance to win this year’s $2 million race.

The white-haired trainer with 14 starters will send out three more Saturday – Wood Memorial winner Bob and John, Blue Grass Stakes winner Sinister Minister and Santa Anita Derby runner-up Point Determined.

Each has different running styles, and depending how the Derby unfolds when the field takes off, any one is capable of giving Baffert win No. 4.

“You always want to come to the Derby with a good horse,” Baffert said Tuesday outside Barn 33 after arriving from California. “And we’re back here now with three really good horses. It feels nice.”

A year ago, Zito sent out a record-tying five horses, including favorite Bellamy Road. That horse finished seventh – the best among Zito’s group. He had plenty of prospects this year, but none came through in the Derby preps.

As he watched a dozen Derby contenders work out at Churchill Downs the other morning, it hit him hard: “It was kind of an empty feeling, a weird feeling. For me, it was like a little bit of anxiety.”

Lukas, meanwhile, didn’t have a serious Derby contender, and will miss the race for the third time in six years after a record run of 20 straight.

“It’s just the way the chips fall,” Baffert said. “We try to get here every year. Sometimes you’re the bug, sometimes you’re the windshield. That’s the way it works in this business.”

This year, Baffert’s all in. While the early part of Derby week has focused on the trainers of favorites Brother Derek and Barbaro, there will be much attention paid to the Baffert, who has been virtually ignored the past three Derbies – with good reason.

In 2003, Indian Charlie was 14th at 10-1; Wimbledon was scratched the day before the 2004 Derby; and Sort It Out was 17th at 61-1 last year.

“The last few years, we were just trying to get there,” Baffert said, “just trying to stay in the show.”

From 1997-02, though, Baffert was the show. He won two thirds of the Triple Crown an astounding four times – the Derby and Preakness with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998) and War Emblem (2002) and the Preakness and Belmont Stakes with Point Given (2001).

He could go on another Triple Crown roll.

“It makes you feel good when you win those major preps,” Baffert said as he and his wife, Jill, took turns making sure their 16-month-old son, Bode, didn’t toddle off to trouble near the barn.

“It makes you feel like you have a legitimate chance. It’s just that I’ve been getting better horses. I’m in a good place, and I have good 3-year-olds.”

Stonerside Stable’s Bob McNair (owner of the Houston Texans) sent Bob and John to Baffert last July. Sinister Minister was bought for Terry Lanni, Ernie Moody and Bernie Schiappa earlier this year. Point Determined was sent his way after the late Bob Lewis, and his wife, Beverly, bought the colt for $750,000.

And after a highly successful prep season, Baffert has three Derby challengers to take on the likes of Brother Derek, Lawyer Ron and Barbaro.

Already, Baffert has his own theme – comparing his Derby horses to each of his Derby winners.

“Sinister Minister brings the War Emblem style, get out there and just go as fast as you can. He’s unrate-able,” Baffert said. “Bob and John is like Real Quiet, he has one pace, a long, fluid stride. He’s just going to go along there, cruising behind there, probably five to seven lengths off.

And Point Determined?

“Just a grinder, like Silver Charm. He’s like riding a bicycle. You’ve just got to keep him into it. If he keeps going well, he’ll be coming late,” he added.

Schiappa, who has known Baffert about seven years, said he and his partners tried and failed to buy Deputy Glitters and Sweetnorthernsaint early on, then Baffert eyed Sinister Minister after a maiden win at Santa Anita in January.

“We went to Bob and asked him to find something, and he did,” Schiappa said. “And here we are.”

McNair has sent many horses to Baffert, including Congaree, who was third in the 2001 Derby.

“A lot of the trainers seem to have a special knack for doing some things much better than other things,” McNair said. “For him, the Derby is his Super Bowl. That’s what he lives for. He loves it. I don’t know of anybody that is better able to prepare young horses for the Derby than Bob Baffert.”

Handling different owners on Derby day?

“When you have three different styles (of running), there’s really no conflict,” he said. “They know I’m trying to win it. I’m trying to run 1-2-3.”

AP-ES-05-02-06 1953EDT