Bode leads Baffert to Preakness

• BALTIMORE -- Bob Baffert led Bodemeister around the shedrow, or maybe Bodemeister led Baffert -- it was hard to say. Having just arrived Wednesday afternoon at Pimlico, the trainer quickly grabbed a shank and began walking Bodemeister so that a groom could prepare a stall to receive as its new resident the 8-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's 137th Preakness.

Around they went, and as they approached a clutch of observers, Baffert abruptly stopped, pulling back slightly on the shank to let Bodemeister know to stop, too. Looking directly at the three people standing just outside the stakes barn, Baffert said, "If I drop from a heart attack, somebody grab the horse."

If I drop from a heart attack, somebody grab the horse.

-- Bob Baffert with Bodemeister at Pimlico

Baffert had a heart attack seven weeks ago after traveling halfway around the world to Dubai, Bodemeister ran second in the Kentucky Derby two weeks ago after throwing down some of the fastest fractions in the race's history, but they both seem to have recovered.

And that's the key to the Preakness. That's the overwhelming question, all others mere tributaries flowing into it: Has Bodemeister recovered sufficiently from his Derby performance to give another superlative effort in the Preakness? If he has, he'll win.

Walking at a brisk pace, Baffert came around the shedrow and stopped abruptly again, in the same place, to address the swelling group of observers. Referring to two other trainers in the barn, Baffert joked, "If I drop, they're going to be fighting over who's going to catch him."

As Baffert spoke, he grinned as though he knew what everybody was getting for Christmas. And although he was joking, in a strange sort of way he summarized the position Bodemeister will put everybody in Saturday: trying to catch him. Bodemeister is the speed in a Preakness that otherwise has little; he's the Millennium Falcon of the Triple Crown.

How fast is Bodemeister? Well, he's the only horse ever to "hit the board," or finish in the top three, of the Kentucky Derby after running the opening half-mile in less than 45.75 seconds. Specifically, Bodemeister ran the opening half in 45.39, and despite scorching the earth he led down to the sixteenth pole before relinquishing his advantage and finishing second.

"If I hadn't seen the clock, I wouldn't ever have known he was going that fast," Baffert said about Bodemeister and the Derby pace. Having turned the colt over to a groom, the trainer continued, "He looked like he was running easy [in the Derby], and when I looked up and saw the split, I thought, 'Oh, no, we're in trouble.'"

Only four other horses ever ran the opening half of the Derby in less than 45.40 seconds, and then, their energy spent, they all collapsed like misbegotten souffles, finishing 19th (Top Avenger in 1981), 16th (Groovy in 1986 and Spanish Chestnut in 2005) and 13th (Songandaprayer in 2001).

Bodemeister could have done the same. After expending so much effort and energy in such a rapid pace, Bodemeister had every reason to capitulate, every reason to fade into the ruck, but he gave a remarkably good effort just to finish second in the Derby.

And here's the thing, here's the development that brings it all back to the overwhelming question: He won't have to run the opening half-mile in 45.39 to have the lead Saturday.

Trinniberg, a sprinter who never had raced beyond seven furlongs, pressed the pace in the Derby. Hansen, last year's juvenile champion, applied some pressure, too, only 2½ lengths back during the early stages. But neither horse is in the Preakness. With a cooler pace, Bodemeister should be able to conserve sufficient energy to withstand the inevitable challenges in the stretch, but only if he has recovered from his Derby coruscations.

"I just worry about my horse," Baffert said about the absence of pace and pressure in the Preakness. "If he's not doing well, it doesn't matter who's in there."

And so that overwhelming question comes around again: Is Bodemeister doing well and has he recovered sufficiently from his Kentucky effort, which came just three weeks after a superlative performance in Arkansas, to make yet another dazzling display? Forget gas. How much brilliance can possibly be left in the tank?

Bodemeister appeared to be doing well Wednesday. When he walked off the van, he looked around, alert and curious, his ears pricking. And he certainly made a good appearance, his color bright and his weight holding.

"He ran hard [in the Derby]," Baffert said, "and then he just stopped. But it wasn't like he came out of the race totally exhausted. … I intended to give him four days off after that, but after three days, he wanted to go back to the track [for a routine gallop]."

When it comes to his horses, Baffert can be incredibly instinctive. He and the horses in his care have a trusting rapport: They seem to speak to him, and he listens respectfully. And although he said Wednesday that nobody can be fully and completely certain about a horse's readiness or know for sure whether the tank's replete with energy, Baffert's instincts, which have taken him to the top of the game, have brought him here to Pimlico for the Preakness.