Having been raised on a ranch in Nogales, Ariz., near the Mexican border, and having ridden during his teen years in a fair share of those I-bet-my-horse-can-outrun-yours races that were so common in the Southwest, he once thought that having a 20-horse stable at Rillito Park would be proof he had made it. He made it all right.
“I was just hoping that one day I’d be training 20 horses,” Bob Baffert said, recalling his early years as a quarter horse trainer at Rillito Park in Tucson in the late 1970s. “I thought that would be great. That was the goal, to train 20 horses. I never thought I’d be here. It’s been quite a journey.”
From Rillito Park, the journey has been extraordinary, landing Baffert in the most celebrated winner’s circles, his image on the most respected magazine covers and his name in the most revered record books alongside the coruscating numbers that attempt to quantify and define his career: nearly $300 million in earnings; more than 3,000 victories; 20 champions, with three Horses of the Year; 15 victories in Triple Crown races; 15 in Breeders’ Cup Championship races; four Eclipse Awards; and two Triple Crown winners. He has become the face of horse racing, the game’s most recognizable luminary, a member of the Hall of Fame — quite a journey indeed.
And Baffert could soon tie a record once thought unreachable. It’s one of those lapidary standards like Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak, or Nolan Ryan’s seven no-hitters, or Wayne Gretzky’s 91 goals or Byron Nelson’s 11 consecutive PGA wins. Horse racing’s unbreakable record has been legendary trainer Ben Jones’ six Kentucky Derby victories. Until D. Wayne Lukas won with Charismatic in 1999, only one trainer other than Jones had won more than three: Herbert J. “Derby Dick” Thompson, who won his fourth and final Derby with Brokers Tip in 1933. Jones blew by Thompson’s record in 1949 with Ponder and won again in 1952 with Hill Gail, his sixth Derby.
Baffert has won five. That’s five and counting. And aimed in the direction of Louisville, Ky., squarely at the first Saturday in May, he has three leading 2020 Kentucky Derby contenders: Thousand Words, Nadal and Authentic.
But first, before discussing the Baffert trio, this needs to be said: Winning the Kentucky Derby is much more difficult today than it was when Jones accumulated his victories. Because of that, from here, Baffert’s five wins in America’s premier race already represent a greater achievement than Jones’ six.
Foremost among the reasons for that is the racehorse population. Lawrin, Jones’ first Derby winner, was foaled in 1935, when the North American foal crop totaled 5,038; Silver Charm, Baffert’s first, was foaled in 1994, when the North American foal crop totaled 35,341. How much more difficult is it to be preeminent among 35,000 than among 5,000?
Jones’ six Derby winners emerged from foal crops that totaled 38,707, an average of 6,451 foals. Baffert’s five Derby winners emerged from foal crops that totaled 153,830, an average of 30,766 foals.
Another contributing factor here is World War II. Jones won the Derby with Whirlaway seven months before America entered the war in 1941 and with Pensive in 1944. During the war, horse racing contracted and competition declined. The foal crop shrank 14.4 percent during this period. With a dearth of workers and a curtailment of public transportation, racing was subject to approval by local War Manpower Commissions. Some racetracks simply closed. Saratoga, for example, went dark after its 1942 season and remained so until 1946. And so with fewer horses and less competition, winning the Derby wasn’t quite the mountain climb it would become.
Moreover, the modern Derby itself isn’t what it used to be. It’s much more. When Jones won his first, Matt Winn, Churchill Downs’ president and impresario, already had established the Derby as America’s most glamorous, festive and exciting horse race. Making his point, Winn and the Derby had appeared on the cover of Time magazine in 1937. But Jones’ final Derby in 1952 was the first to receive national television coverage, and since then the first event in the Triple Crown has grown so significantly in cultural importance and visibility that it’s no longer just the nation’s premier race but also one of the most meaningful and poignant events in all of sport, and winning it one of the most gratifying. It’s the race everyone knows and everyone wants to win. And with its burgeoning importance and popularity, the Derby field has grown so dramatically that Churchill has had to limit the field 20. During the Jones era, the average Derby field was 13.
One more factor worth noting: All but one of Jones’ Derby victories were for Calumet Farm, the sport’s dominant owner and breeder. During the Jones era, Calumet topped the national owners and breeders standings eight times. But nobody dominates racing today, at least not the same way or to the degree that Calumet did in the 1940s. Baffert, on the other hand, has won his five Derbys for different owners.
But who will be his sixth, and will it be this year that Baffert reaches the unreachable?
“Thousand Words is getting better,” Baffert said about the winner of the recent Robert Lewis Stakes at Santa Anita. Thousand Words doesn’t have tree-bending speed or knock-back acceleration, but he wins, and, even more, “He wants to win,” Baffert said. “He’s a grinder, and he’s very professional.” Thousand Words should improve as the distances stretch out, his trainer said, and the classic mile-and-a-quarter should bring out his best.
Authentic is a different story altogether. “He’s just raw talent,” Baffert said about the colt that won the Sham Stakes (G3) despite ducking toward the inner rail in mid-stretch, perhaps shying from the grandstand noise. With the addition of earplugs, he recently worked a bullet three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.20.
“He’s light on his feet and has a lot of speed,” Baffert said, “but he’s not made like a sprinter. He’s barely tapped his talent.”
Their styles complementary, Thousand Words and Authentic will both return March 7 in the San Felipe Stakes (G2) at Santa Anita. And Nadal will go to Oaklawn Park to make his two-turn debut in the Rebel Stakes (G2) on March 14. Nadal, of course, won Sunday's San Vicente Stakes (G2) after battling through an opening half mile in 44.09 seconds.
“He’ll never have to run that fast again,” Baffert said of the opening four furlongs. “I like the way he gutted it out. It’s very rare you see a horse run a race like that, especially in their second start. Only the good ones can do stuff like that. He’s tough. He shouldn’t have any trouble stretching out.”
With such a talented trio in his barn — Baffert said he would also include High Velocity among his horses with a chance to make the journey to Kentucky — he has Jones' record in sight. Or he would if he cared about such things.
“I’ve never been one for worrying about records,” Baffert said before launching into a story about winning his 2,000th race.
“We were at Hollywood Park, and this guy came up to me and said, ‘Do you realize you just won your 2000th race?’ I said, ‘Really? I thought I had won more than that by now.’
“A few minutes later I saw Jerry Hollendorfer in the paddock, and I said, ‘Jerry, how many races have you won?’ He said, ‘Oh, about 4,500 or so.’ Records come and go.”
True, but six Derby wins — that record hasn’t gone anywhere in 68 years. But it could soon go into the Baffert column.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures. Here's his latest Top 20 ranking of Kentucky Derby contenders:
No. Horse (Trainer) Starts-Wins-Seconds-Thirds Earnings Sire
1. Dennis’ Moment (Dale Romans) 4-2-0-0 $167,800 Tiznow
Comment: Saturday, after he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.22 at Gulfstream Park, his trainer, somewhat predictably, said the move was exactly what they “were looking for.” A week earlier, Dennis’ Moment scorched the earth with a 58.47 move, and so Saturday’s more relaxed workout was indeed ideal since he’ll have to relax when he makes his seasonal debut on Feb. 29 at 1 1/16 miles in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (G2). For that race, Flavien Prat will be in the saddle, substituting for Irad Ortiz, Jr., who’ll be riding that day in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
2. Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) 4-3-0-1 $498,900 Constitution
2. Tiz the Law (Barclay Tagg) 4-3-0-1 $498,900 Constitution
Comment: Monday at Palm Meadows, he went an easy half mile in 50 seconds. It was his first workout since his exceptional showing in the Holy Bull Stakes (G3), where he ran the fourth quarter mile in about 24.40 and drew clear to win by three lengths. No horse of his generation has given a better performance, at least not in this country. Jack Knowlton, the most prominent member of the colt’s ownership group, Sackatoga Stable, has announced that Tiz the Law will make his next start March 28 in the Florida Derby (G1).
3. Thousand Words (Bob Baffert) 3-3-0-0 $211,000 Pioneerof The Nile
Comment: He has won his three races by a total of 1 1/2 lengths, never drawing clear from his rivals. So what does that mean, if anything? Does he do just what’s necessary? Maybe. Does it mean — just to anthropomorphize for a moment — that he’s intelligent, gregarious, merciful, conservative, understated or lucky? (Alysheba, as a point of reference, won nine races by less than a length, four of them in a photo.) Or is that all Thousand Words has? Again, maybe. From here, he looks like a colt that has the potential for considerably more progress. How much more is hard to say, but the San Felipe could begin to provide some answers.
4. Nadal (Bob Baffert) 2-2-0-0 $153,000 Blame
Comment: Nadal fuels speculation every time he goes to the racetrack, and his performance in Sunday’s San Vicente Stakes further supports the idea that he could become Baffert’s next superstar. Between horses early, he made the lead on the backstretch, narrowly lost his advantage in the turn, outfought his rival through the lane and won by nearly a length. The performance is difficult to assess because there was only one other one-turn race (a maiden-claiming affair) on the main track that day at Santa Anita, and his final time of 1:22.59, although solid, didn’t dazzle. He and the speedster Ginobili sped through the opening half mile in a sensational 44.09 seconds, and so Nadal ran the final three-eighths in a relatively quiet 38.50, downshifting noticeably — and predictably, given the white-hot pace — in the final furlong. In terms of numbers, Nadal’s race had the sort of backwards profile characteristic of a speedster: His speed figures for the half-mile and three-quarter-mile splits were 13 points higher than his final number. Still, he persevered and fought gamely, and he had to run every step of the seven-eighths of a mile. And so now it becomes interesting. Now he has to learn to control all that natural speed. Nadal’s pedigree actually yells for more distance, even if his final furlong of the San Vicente didn’t.
5. Anneau d’Or (Blaine Wright) 3-1-2-0 $399,000 Medaglia d’Oro
Comment: He has strung together three bullet workouts over the synthetic surface at Golden Gate, the most recent being three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.80 on Saturday. And so his trainer expressed confidence that although Anneau d’Or hasn’t raced in more than two months the colt will be ready for the nine furlongs of Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes (G2) at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He has drawn into the second and weaker division of the race. A neck and a head away from an unblemished record and a championship, Anneau d’Or will race in blinkers for the first time Saturday, and Joel Rosario will replace Flavien Prat in the saddle.
6. Sole Volante (Patrick Biancone) 4-3-0-1 $196,310 Karakontie
Comment: On the one hand, he had a near-perfect trip when he won the Sam F. Davis Stakes (G3) at Tampa Bay. On the other, he was athletic, tractable and nimble enough to ensure a good trip for himself. Like water around a drain, he swirled around the second turn, and that’s precisely where the Kentucky Derby is usually won. Although not very big, he put in a sustained and powerful move Saturday, running the second half mile in 47.56 seconds, and he has a strong, classic pedigree that suggests he’ll get better with more distance (a dosage profile of 6-0-13-5-2, and a 0.93 dosage index). By a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner and out of a full-sister to an Epsom Oaks winner, Sole Volante is also a half-brother to Explode, who won the Canadian Derby at 1 1/4 miles. Yes, Sole Volante won his first two races on turf and his pedigree is rather green, but he doesn’t move like a turf horse; he moves like a horse that could make considerable noise on the road to the Triple Crown. The Tampa Bay Derby (G2) would seem like the logical next step, but the Louisiana Derby (G2) is also possible.
7. Honor A. P. (John Shirreffs) 2-1-1-0 $42,200 Honor Code
Comment: Going solo, the good-looking colt worked five-eighths of a mile Saturday in 1:00.80 at Santa Anita. The exercise rider gave mild encouragement down the lane, and Honor A. P. galloped out strongly. John Shirreffs, his trainer, said he would “try” to make the San Felipe with the big colt, which suggests they’re progressing very carefully and patiently. Last year, nine days before his outstanding maiden victory, he worked a bullet three-quarters of a mile. So in about two weeks, if that pattern is duplicated, Honor A. P. should signal his readiness with a head-turning move.
8. Independence Hall (Michael Trombetta) 4-3-1-0 $250,000 Constitution
Comment: Although he disappointed as the 3-5 favorite in the Sam F. Davis Stakes, he ran well — fairly well anyway. Of most importance, the bad boy took a step forward in terms of deportment and suggested overall improvement awaits him just down the road. He saved ground in the first turn, angled out on the backstretch and advanced in the four-path to grab the lead in the second turn, looking every inch a winner. Momentarily. But he was too eager in the early running, and his eagerness put him too close to a hot pace — 46.52 for the opening half-mile. While the pacesetters faded into the ruck, to last and next-to-last, Independence Hall, much to his credit, finished with some determination, running the fourth quarter-mile in 24.80 seconds. He just couldn’t stay with Sole Volante in the final sixteenth. But it was more than 11 lengths back to the third horse, Ajaaweed.
9. Authentic (Bob Baffert) 2-2-0-0 $91,200 Into Mischief
Comment: A late foal born May 5, he’ll still be, by his biological calendar, a 2-year-old on Derby Day. So he’s understandably a little behind some others in this class in terms of experience and maturity, all of which makes his performance in the Sham Stakes even more impressive. He dominated, controlling the pace and winning easily despite ducking toward the inside rail in mid-stretch. He’s an athlete. And he can only improve, possibly with an equipment adjustment. On Wednesday at Santa Anita, he worked a bullet three-quarters of a mile in 1:12.20 (eight lengths faster than the second fastest move). The San Felipe would seem a likely place for his return.
10. Storm the Court (Peter Eurton) 4-2-0-1 $1,172,951 Court Vision
Comment: If he had drawn the rail, he might have won the San Vicente; he certainly would have been right there at the wire with Nadal. In other words, the champ ran better in the San Vicente than his fourth-place finish might suggest. After breaking sharply, he didn’t keep pace with the explosion (Ginobili) to his outside, nor was he asked to. He entered the turn in the three-path but exited, after being forced wider, near the middle of the track. As it turned out, he ran more than two lengths farther than Nadal and finished 2 1/4 lengths behind him. And then Storm the Court galloped out strongly. Yes, with the rail, and if Flavien Prat had sent him, Storm the Court might have won; then again, the San Vicente wasn’t the goal, but it was, as it turned out, a decent start to the champ’s campaign.
11. Basin (Steve Asmussen) 3-2-1-0 $261,000 Liam’s Map
Comment: One of the best juveniles of 2019, the Hopeful winner has had five workouts since mid-January, and each seems better than the last; so he’s progressing steadily and shouldn’t be far from returning to competition. Last Friday, he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:01 at Fair Grounds in New Orleans.
12. Silver State (Steve Asmussen) 3-1-2-0 $96,106 Hard Spun
Comment: He worked an easy half mile Monday (50.20 seconds), the sort of move Asmussen typically employs approaching a race. Silver State is entered in Saturday’s Risen Star at Fair Grounds, drawing into the first division of the split stakes, and this represents an important step for the handsome Hard Spun colt. So far in his brief career, he has had more struggles than accomplishments. He had a troubled trip from start to finish, for example, when he ran second in the Lecomte Stakes (G3). But he should appreciate the Risen Star’s nine furlongs.
13. Enforceable (Mark Casse) 7-2-1-2 $267,150 Tapit
Comment: In preparation for the Risen Star Stakes in New Orleans, he worked a half mile in 49.60 seconds Saturday. He won the Lecomte Stakes despite a wide trip, and as one of the more experienced competitors in this cavalcade, he looks like another who’ll appreciate the nine furlongs of the Risen Star. He’s in the first division, along with the two horses that finished immediately behind him in the Lecomte, Silver State and Mr. Monomoy.
14. Silver Prospector (Steve Asmussen) 7-2-0-2 $263,051 Declaration of War
Comment: In the context of the Derby, he has an advantage over many of these in that he has won over the Churchill surface, taking last year’s Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes. In his seasonal debut, on a speed-favoring, muddy surface, he rallied from last to finish fourth in the Smarty Jones Stakes, an excusable outcome given the conditions. He followed up with a bullet, and on Wednesday at Oaklawn Park, he worked an easy half-mile in 50.20 seconds in preparation for Monday’s Southwest Stakes, where he can be expected to improve.
15. Answer In (Brad Cox) 3-1-2-0 $153,412 Dialed In
Comment: He lost his debut by a nose and the Springboard Mile by a head after encountering trouble in both races. But he remains under the radar, a stealth threat on the road to Kentucky. That could change Monday, though, and he could loom boldly into view. He has had six workouts since the first of the year, the most recent being Sunday’s five-eighths in 1:01.40, in preparation for the Southwest Stakes.
16. Gouverneur Morris (Todd Pletcher) 2-1-1-0 $149,500 Constitution
Comment: He worked a bullet five-eighths (1:01.23) at Palm Beach Downs in preparation for his return to competition Friday at Tampa Bay. He hasn’t raced since October at Keeneland, where he finished second as the favorite in the Breeders’ Futurity. Although Friday’s non-stakes race might seem a modest place to start to his campaign, Pletcher used a similar approach with Always Dreaming in 2017. And this won’t be an easy task for Gouverneur Morris, for the field includes Untitled, who finished a troubled fourth in the Swale Stakes (G3).
17. Blackberry Wine (Joe Sharp) 6-2-0-3 $112,622 Oxbow
Comment: Except for his debut at Saratoga, where he lunged at the break, he’s undefeated on the main track. And in mid-January in New Orleans, he gave an outstanding performance, winning in a fast clocking (about two lengths faster than the Lecomte Stakes the same day) with a powerful gallop-out. So the speedster is another intriguing under-the-radar type. He’ll try to make himself more visible in Saturday’s Risen Star Stakes.
18. Max Player (Linda Rice) 3-2-1-0 $173,500 Honor Code
Comment: He rallied from last and finished second in his debut, a half-length back. Since then, he has put up consecutive victories, including a score in the Withers Stakes (G3), where he drew clear with a powerful finish despite a wide trip. Ok, it was a relatively slow race, but Max Player has plenty of upside, and he looks as if he’s going to appreciate the longer distances.
19. As Seen on Tv (Kelly Breen) 4-2-2-0 $108,205 Lookin At Lucky
Comment: Flattered by Sole Volante, As Seen On Tv moves into the top 20. His performances encourage his inclusion here, as does his pedigree, which suggests he’ll continue to improve with added distance. His sire, Lookin At Lucky, won the Preakness and Haskell, of course, and on the bottom of the pedigree there’s Pulpit, A.P. Indy and Alydar. As Seen On Tv has had four workouts since his runner-up finish in the Mucho Macho Man, and his trainer, Kelly Breen, is reportedly looking around for a stakes. He shouldn’t have to look far: The Fountain of Youth is Feb. 29.
20. Maxfield (Brendan Walsh) 2-2-0-0 $354,412 Street Sense
Comment: At 13-1, Maxfield was the third individual choice (behind Nadal and Tiz the Law) in Churchill Downs’ recent Derby Futures pool. At this point, though, his odds of just making it to the Derby would seem to be at least that. He’s included here out of respect for his talent and connections, but he’s far behind. He delivered one of the most scintillating juvenile performances of 2019 when he won the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland by more than five lengths. Coming back from an injury, he has developed and progressed, according to his trainer. But will he be able to catch up on the road to Kentucky? Maybe. But it’s not Walsh’s style to push a young horse, and Maxfield will have to drag him there if they’re going to make the Derby. The thought here is that down the road Maxfield could indeed prove himself to be one of the best his generation, but the road to his future may not pass through Louisville.