Bob Baffert has sent 24 horses to the starting gate for the Kentucky Derby and has won it three times, with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002. More often than not, the horses he trains are contenders.
Still, he hasn't won the Derby in 13 years. But he could find himself back in the winner's circle Saturday, because he has never arrived at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May with such a strong chance.
Baffert not only has the favorite in American Pharoah but also the second choice in Dortmund, who is undefeated in six races and would have been a clear-cut favorite except for American Pharoah's freakishly impressive victory in the Arkansas Derby.
"Everyone's on pins and needles," Baffert said. "A lot of anxiety, all this week."
His two horses have not raced against each other, as Baffert has shrewdly kept them separated and equally successful. American Pharoah, whose only loss was in his first race, had already established himself with two stakes victories in California before Dortmund even raced for the first time.
American Pharoah won the Del Mar Futurity and the Forerunner at Santa Anita before Dortmund hit the ground running and won a maiden race at Santa Anita Nov. 2. Dortmund then reeled off five more victories, most impressively winning the Santa Anita Derby by 4¼ lengths in fast time.
Baffert trained American Pharoah in California but sent him to Arkansas for his two 2015 victories — in the Rebel Stakes by 6¼ lengths and the Arkansas Derby by 8 lengths.
Mike Battaglia, the longtime oddsmaker at Churchill Downs, has said this is the most imposing two-horse entry since Citation and Coaltown in 1948. Citation went on to win the Triple Crown that year after the two horses finished first and second in the Derby.
What's changed since 1948 is that Citation and Coaltown were part of a six-horse field.
American Pharoah and Dortmund will be facing 18 other horses, and even though they are favorites, victory will not come easy in a field loaded with other talent.
Dortmund, owned by Kaleem Shah, who also owns last year's Breeders' Cup Classic winner Bayern (he likes to name his horses after German soccer teams), is a freak of nature. He's gigantic.
Baffert told the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader that Dortmund is 17.2 hands tall and weighs nearly 1,360 pounds. Hands are measured from the ground to a horse's withers (basically his shoulder), not the head. The 17.2 hands convert to 70 inches. No matter how you measure it, he's tall. The weight is well above average, too.
Baffert has been comparing Dortmund to Frank Kaminsky, the 7-foot center for Wisconsin's Final Four team who was college basketball's National Player of the Year.
"He's a big, tall horse with his stride, and he has speed," Baffert said. "He's really, really fast early. Smaller horses that try to keep up with him, they give up. He has a lot of determination and a lot of heart. He'll need that."
American Pharoah is owned by New Jersey businessman Ahmed Zayat, who has two other horses in the race, El Kabeir and Mr. Z.
"They're both outstanding 3-year-olds, and I just feel so fortunate,'' said Baffert. "I can't believe I have two horses like that the same year.
"They're two different types of horses. [Jockey] Martin [Garcia] works them both, and it's really hard to separate them because they move differently. American Pharoah, he's brilliant. The way he moves, he does it effortlessly. Dortmund, he's big, long, and he's really light on his feet.
"They don't get hot, and they're just really quiet, gentle horses. I just can't believe how fortunate I am to have these two, big guns.
''Hope for a dead-heat.''
With his long white hair and wisecracking manner, Baffert can be a polarizing figure. There are many who enjoy his style, while others find him annoying.
There are others who question how he handles horses. He came under investigation two years ago after seven of his horses died between November 2011 and March 2013. The California Horse Racing Board cleared Baffert and all who work for him of any wrongdoing.
Necropsies were performed and the board said there was "no factually based explanation'' for the deaths. Dr. Rick Arthur, the CHRB's equine medical director, said the deaths were "undeniably exceptional.''
Those were dark days for Baffert. Much different from this week in Louisville.
|Ocho Ocho Ocho
|Undefeated at 2 but hasn’t been able to keep it up against the top-class horses as a 3-year-old.
|Has won four of five lifetime events and has the top jockey/trainer combination in the nation.
|Undefeated in three races with big speed figures but didn’t race at age 2, and no horse unraced at 2 has won the Derby since 1882.
|Has won only once race but was a nice second in the Wood.
|Has only one victory, but this is Canada’s leading trainer. Jockey can be inconsistent.
|Mike de Kock
|Has won only in Dubai but is 4 for 7. Trainer is from South Africa but has been no worse than second in five starts in North America.
|Had an impressive winter running on the inner track at Aqueduct, but disappointed in the Wood. Needs to bounce back.
|Undefeated in six races, also in awesome fashion, including a 4 1/4-length victory in the Santa Anita Derby.
|Has won only on the grass and futilely chased Dortmund in the last two races.
|Coming off a huge 14-length victory in Sunland Derby but chased Dortmund in two other starts in California.
|Stanford was pulled from the field on Thursday.
|Swept the three Triple Crown prep races at Fair Grounds in New Orleans. Will be running late.
|Won his first three races (one by DQ) but then couldn’t compete in the Florida Derby.
|His only victory came last September at Churchill Downs. Couldn’t compete with International Star in Louisiana.
|Seemed a cut below the best before he won the Wood Memorial, rallying to a 2-length victory.
|Never worse than third in five starts; he’ll do his best running late.
|D. Wayne Lukas
|Only 1 for 12 lifetime but is trained by one of the all-time masters.
|Has rattled off four impressive victories with big speed figures, then had an eye-popping workout Sunday.
|Rick Violette Jr.
|Never been out of the money but couldn’t get past Materiality in the Florida Derby. Jockey and trainer underrated.
|Had two nice wins at Oaklawn Park before being blown away by American Pharoah in the Arkansas Derby.
|Was on the also-eligible list but needed a scratch to get in. Nakatani is 0 for 17 in Kentucky Derby.