Bob Baffert jokes that his last Kentucky Derby victory was so long ago, he doesn’t remember.
The Hall of Fame trainer could make some new memories Saturday if either of his top two favorites – American Pharoah or Dortmund – end up wearing the garland of red roses in the winner’s circle.
Baffert is seeking his fourth Derby win and first since 2002. Back then, his youngest son, 10-year-old Bode, wasn’t even born.
“We just have to contain ourselves,” Baffert said. “It’s exciting coming in here with two good horses.”
The 62-year-old trainer has what some believe is the strongest 1-2 punch since trainer Ben Jones won with Citation and finished second with Coaltown in 1948.
“Hope for a dead-heat,” Baffert joked.
American Pharoah – winner of four straight races by a combined 22 1/4 lengths – is the early 5-2 favorite. The brown colt has an unusually short tail; another horse chewed the end of it off on the farm. He’ll be ridden by Victor Espinoza, who won last year aboard California Chrome.
Dortmund, the 3-1 second choice, comes into the Derby with a 6-0 record, equaling the undefeated marks of Seattle Slew and Smarty Jones when they won in 1977 and 2004. His sire Big Brown won in 2008.
“It might be the toughest Derby that we’ve had in quite a few years,” said Kiaran McLaughlin, who trains Wood Memorial winner Frosted.
Some things to look for at the 141st Kentucky Derby:
TODD SQUAD: Todd Pletcher will saddle three horses: Carpe Diem, the 8-1 third choice; Materiality; and Itsaknockout, fittingly running on the same day as the Floyd Mayweather-Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas. Jockey Luis Saez will wear the name of each fighter on his pants as part of a promotional tie-in. Pletcher won his first Derby in 2010 with Super Saver.
OFTEN A BRIDESMAID: Ahmed Zayat is looking to shake his bad luck at the Derby. Three times horses owned by the Egyptian have finished second behind long shots. In 2009, 50-1 Mine That Bird sneaked up along the rail and beat Pioneerof the Nile. In 2011, Nehro was defeated by 20-1 Animal Kingdom. A year later, 15-1 I’ll Have Another beat Bodemeister. Baffert counts two of those losses among his Derby defeats, having trained Pioneerof the Nile and Bodemeister. Zayat experienced more misfortune Friday when El Kabeir was scratched from the race with a sore foot. That leaves Zayat with American Pharoah and Mr. Z in the 20-horse field.
BIG NUMBERS: The Derby attendance record of 165,307 was set in 2012, when I’ll Have Another won. Saturday’s forecast calls for sunny skies and 73 degrees around race time at 6:34 p.m. ET. The Kentucky Oaks on Friday drew a record of 123,763, setting the stage for a big crowd to pour through the gates at Churchill Downs to party, drink and maybe even see a horse or two.
SIZE MATTERS: Dortmund stands 17 hands; in human terms that’s 5 foot, 8 inches from the ground to the area between his shoulder blades. Each hand equals 4 inches, so when Dortmund raises his head and neck, add another 2 feet or so, making for an imposing beast. By comparison, 2009 Derby winner Mine That Bird was just 15 hands. Baffert likens lanky Dortmund to 7-foot Wisconsin center Frank Kaminsky. “He can dunk,” the trainer joked.
BIG BUCKS: The owners of Carpe Diem plunked down $1.6 million for him as a 2-year-old, making the colt the priciest in the 20-horse field. Return on investment in the Derby is often disappointing. The only million-dollar colt to have won was Fusaichi Pegasus in 2000; his owners paid a whopping $4 million.