LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Outside his barn in the Churchill Downs stable area, a barn adorned with plaques identifying the past Kentucky Derby and Oaks winners that had briefly resided there, Bob Baffert stood beneath the eaves to avoid the morning's rain. A violent storm had hit a couple hours earlier, and its watery remnants still filled the air, like debris.
Monday morning here was in many ways horrid -- thunderclaps that reverberated like bombshells, predawn lightning that made the sky look like an x-ray, barrages of rain that came in waves. Rainwater filled every gutter, swale, footprint and hoofprint. Baffert was jovial.
Generally affable, even after a loss, the hall of fame trainer can be as quick with a joke as a handshake. And the better his horses train and perform, the more comfortable he becomes and the more freely he jokes with media, colleagues and passersby. He seemed especially cheerful Monday, his mood impervious to the morning. Not even a deluge could dampen his spirits.
Feel free to read something into that. Baffert can hide disappointment behind a smile, but he can hardly constrain his joviality when his horses are doing well.
Baffert no doubt was relieved that Hoppertunity got in his last bit of serious pre-Derby work Monday despite the storm. Even more, though, the trainer was encouraged to a point bordering on confidence.
Early Monday, shortly after the worst of the storm but before sunrise, in the company of Drill, a stablemate who's an older stakes winner, Hoppertunity worked a half-mile. Through the rain and the sloppy conditions, he completed the distance in 48 seconds, finishing on even terms with his stablemate after starting two lengths behind. But he perhaps was most impressive in his gallop-out. Gradually leaving Drill behind, Hoppertunity just kept going, through three-quarters of a mile in 1:13.40 and seven-eighths in 1:27.40.
"It was a good work," Baffert said. "I'm glad I got the work in. He looked great. He was reaching out well."
Hoppertunity, Baffert explained, has been something of a surprise. In the Baffert barn, New Year's Day, the winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, was the foremost candidate for Derby 140. But a freak accident, an errant kick that resulted in a fracture, forced him into early retirement. As for the big and lanky son of Any Given Saturday, Hoppertunity was a bit awkward and completely unlike his speedy half-sister, Executiveprivilege. And even though Hoppertunity showed some ability, nobody would have guessed eight months ago that the Kentucky Derby waited in his future.
A late foal (May 7), he never raced as a 2-year-old -- a fact that raises concerns among Derby historians, who point out that no roseate winner since 1882 was unraced as a juvenile -- but he was ready to run 1 1/16 miles in November. Baffert actually entered Hoppertunity at Hollywood Park but then scratched him -- "I don't remember what the reason was; he spiked a temperature maybe" -- from the maiden race that, coincidentally enough, Candy Boy won.
In early January, Hoppertunity finished fifth in his debut, more than seven lengths behind stablemate Bayern. And then things began to happen. As power replaced awkwardness, Hoppertunity steadily improved, winning a one-mile maiden race at Santa Anita, taking the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and, most recently, finishing second to California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.
"These 3-year-olds can do that," Baffert said, referring to the colt's rapid development. "The horse has to bring you here."
Horse racing, Baffert said, waxing philosophical about the sport, can produce the greatest joy. "And the game can also be cruel," he said, referring to racing's capacity for shattering dreams and expectations in an instant. "This game can make you bitter, but you can't let it."
Baffert, of course, has won three Kentucky Derbies since coming here for the first time in 1996 with Cavonnier. Moving to the lead in mid-stretch, Cavonnier held on gamely as a blur named Grindstone charged on the outside. They struck the finish line together and inseparable. The placing judges needed several torturous moments to examine the photograph of the finish and enlarge it so that finally they could uncouple the pair and disentangle the outcome.
"For five minutes I thought I won the Derby, and it was like, wow," Baffert said, letting the susurrous "wow" escape as he put a hand to his chest and tilted back, leaning against the wall of his barn. "I knew what it was like to win the Derby. But it wasn't meant to be. And that was all right."
Whatever's meant to be Saturday, Baffert already seems all right with it.
1. California Chrome
After a 3 ½ hour flight from California, the Kentucky Derby favorite arrived Monday in Louisville, taking up residence in Barn 20 in the Churchill Downs stable shortly before 1 p.m. He's the only horse in the field who's already performing at a level typically good enough to win the Derby. Everybody else must improve. But can California Chrome take his game on the road and adapt? Describing the handsome colt as a "laid back" sort, his trainer, Art Sherman, said he expects California Chrome to take this first trip outside of his home state much as he has taken just about everything else, in stride. Saturday, in his final workout before leaving the comforts of Los Alamitos, California Chrome worked an easy half-mile in 48.20 seconds. But is this an omen? The special Derby saddle towel given to Sherman by Churchill Downs when they arrived misspelled the horse's name (Californa Chrome). Track officials are scurrying to get a new towel to the Chrome camp before he goes to the track for the first time Tuesday morning.
2. Wicked Strong
The Wood Memorial winner traveled here by van from New York, leaving Saturday and arriving Sunday. When he went to the track for the first time here Monday, he made a positive impression, galloping more than 1 ¼ miles and looking around to get acquainted with his new surroundings. He got stronger and stronger as he galloped. His trainer, Jimmy Jerkens, said, "He galloped pretty much like he always does, starts out real slow, looking around, and once he gets warmed up he starts stretching out. He worked seven-eighths of a mile Friday at Belmont Park in 1:27.11.
Trainer Bob Baffert announced Thursday morning that an injured left-front foot will keep Hoppertunity from competing in this year's Kentucky Derby.
4. Intense Holiday
After his outstanding workout here Sunday, where he ran away from We Miss Artie, Intense Holiday has become the buzz horse. His move was indeed one of the best seen here this week. With jockey John Velazquez riding, Intense Holiday completed a half-mile in 48.60 seconds, finishing about four lengths ahead of his workmate, and then galloped out with energy. A long-bodied, long-striding colt, Intense Holiday is another who looks as if he could excel at the Derby distance, and he's thriving here.
Danza also has turned heads with his preparation here. On Sunday, he worked an easy half-mile in 48.80 seconds, but in doing so, with only a soupcon of encouragement, he surged away from his workmate, Vinceremos, in deep stretch. Is he really as good as his Arkansas Derby victory suggests? Maybe. When winning at Oaklawn Park, he sustained a long drive and then galloped out with overflowing energy. He appears to be reaching a peak level of performance at just the right time.
6. Candy Boy
He had no obvious excuse while finishing nine lengths back in the Santa Anita Derby, where he obviously regressed from his victory in the Robert Lewis Stakes. But Candy Boy has quietly made a positive impression here at Churchill Downs, especially on Saturday, when he worked five-eighths of a mile in 1:00.80. He never has given a poor performance, he looks good and is training well, and he could be ready to take a step forward.
Samraat was to travel here Monday evening from New York, where on Friday he worked an easy mile, which has become his usual routine, in 1:45.91. Samraat has been a model of consistency and versatility. He can go to the lead or stalk the leaders, but whatever the approach he runs well and gives an all-out effort. He's among the most admirable horses around. But will he be as effective at the Derby distance? That's the big question, especially since he needed more than 13 seconds to get through the final furlong of the Wood Memorial.
8. Vicar's In Trouble
Vicar's In Trouble is a talented and determined little horse, but he could find himself in trouble indeed on Saturday. He seems ill-suited for the classic distance, and he hasn't looked especially strong here in his preparations. When he worked five-eighths of a mile here recently, he ran the final three-eighths in 38.20 seconds and seemed shy on energy.
9T. Medal Count
Medal Count might be the most intriguing horse in the Derby field. He has given his best performances -- a win in the Transylvania Stakes and a runner-up finish in the Blue Grass -- on Keeneland's synthetic track. So, is he one of those synthetic-turf specialists? Maybe. But this week he has trained very sharply over the Churchill surface , working three-quarters of a mile in 1:13 on Saturday, with a strong final quarter (24.80 seconds) and gallop-out. It was one the best workouts seen this week. And he looks the part -- a big, long train of a horse who's inviting the adventurous to come aboard.
9T. Wildcat Red
Although a speedster, he didn't look especially fast when he worked five-eighths of a mile here Saturday in 1:04.40 by the official clock and a few ticks slower by another watch. He finished with little energy. He has an admirable record, however, never finishing worse than second and winning the Fountain of Youth with a determined effort. But after a tough Florida campaign, he could be going the wrong way. He never has raced anywhere but Gulfstream Park, where the surface is very unlike Churchill's. So how will Wildcat Red perform away from home, at 1 ¼ miles?
Also receiving votes: Chitu (28), Ride on Curlin (17), Dance With Fate (10), General a Rod (8), Medal Count (7), Tapiture (6), Commissioner (5), Commanding Curve (3), Social Inclusion (2), We Miss Artie (2).
To see how our experts voted, please click here.