Baffert boys look like Derby darlings
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
Bob Baffert has done some amazing things in the short time he has been a thoroughbred trainer, but the best may be yet to come. After still another huge weekend, the white-haired wonder will head to the Kentucky Derby with the horse to beat and the horse that can beat the horse to beat.
In just his fourth lifetime start, Congaree overcame his inexperience to whip Florida Derby winner Monarchos and four others in the Wood and will likely be the second choice behind his stablemate in the Kentucky Derby.
Afterward, Baffert tried to play down his strong hand.
"I have Kentucky Derby experience behind me," said the two-time Derby winning trainer. "They're both big horses that can really run. I'm comfortable that I have two really good horses. Things can change from day to day, so I try to keep myself relaxed, calm and do my job and get them there. I hope they come back sound and healthy, that's the main goal."
But others were more effusive in their praise for Baffert's duo.
"In my opinion, the one and two horses for the Derby are Baffert's," Wayne Lukas said. "I don't see how you can clear those two."
It's hard to knock Point Given in any way, shape or form. He is bred to handle the Kentucky Derby distance of a mile and a quarter, has a Hall of Fame rider in Gary Stevens and a trainer who is an expert at getting horses ready to win the Kentucky Derby. He has had only two races this year, which means there might be room for improvement off what was an awesome performance in the Santa Anita Derby.
On what can rival trainers cling their hopes that they will beat him in the Derby?
"There's no doubt that Point Given is an exceptionally talented horse," said John Dowd, whose Songandaprayer finished second in the Blue Grass. "Bob Baffert has stabled horses in my barn in New Jersey in the past and I've seen firsthand that he's a great guy with an excellent mind. Point Given's last race was very impressive. But, in hindsight, you can make a case that the horses he faced aren't going anywhere down the road. He sat behind a son of Crafty Prospector (Crafty C T) who had never gone a mile and an eighth. I just wonder how impressive the race was when you consider who he beat."
Though Congaree cleared an important hurdle in the Wood Memorial, his inexperience could be a factor in the Kentucky Derby. He has started just four times and will now head into a race that is notorious for chewing up horses who are light on seasoning.
In the meantime, Congaree was scheduled to ship Saturday to Churchill Downs, where he will soon be joining Point Given. He came out of the Wood Memorial in good order and will have a few easy days before gearing down for his next big assignment.
"Bob was going to leave him here (at Belmont) for a few days to let him relax," assistant trainer Tonja Terranova said. "But there was a plane leaving Saturday and he came out of his race so good that he decided to send him right to Kentucky, Usually, Bob walks them for three days after a race; that will fit right in because Bob was going to California to get Point Given and then head into Kentucky Thursday."
As strong as Baffert's horses look, they will be coming from near and far to try to beat him in the Kentucky Derby. As expected, the weekend quartet of Kentucky Derby preps races trimmed a few contenders from the cast of Kentucky Derby hopefuls, but not as many as you may have thought.
From the Wood Memorial, Congaree will be joined in the Derby field by beaten favorite Monarchos. Coming into the Wood, Monarchos was considered to be the top threat to Point Given, but his stock will no doubt fall after he finished a non-threatening second. Nonetheless, trainer John Ward Jr., was not discouraged.
"I was very pleased with Monarchos' performance," Ward said. "I've got a glass of water that is as full as it can be as far as fitness goes. I considered that to be a speed-biased racetrack yesterday and I believe he was the only horse who made up any ground in the stretch all day long. That speaks well for his potential when they go a mile and a quarter in three weeks."
It appears that Congaree and Monarchos will be the only Wood Memorial starters in the Kentucky Derby field.
From the Blue Grass, it appears that at least four, if not five starters, will take the next step to Louisville. Dowd is the only one who has not made up his mind and will likely make a decision after consulting with owner Bobby Hurley later this week.
The Blue Grass contingent will be led, of course, by winner Millennium Wind. Having overcome myriad problems which had plagued him around the time of his second-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, he rolled to a wire-to-wire victory in the Blue Grass under the ageless Laffit Pincay Jr. and looks like a formidable Kentucky Derby candidate, His critics, though, will point to the fact that he won the Blue Grass over what may have been a racetrack that was biased toward sped and the rail, which happens so often at Keeneland. Six of the seven dirt races run Saturday at Keeneland were won by horses who raced for part or most of the race on the rail.
"For most of the day, whoever got on that path was winning," said Nick Zito, whose A P Valentine was fifth in the Blue Grass. "Millennium Wind is a consistent horse and he is a good horse, but he won over a very biased track. Take nothing away from him, he's a legitimate horse, but anyone else that was in that race has to look at the situation and be frustrated."
Other Blue Grass starters who will go on to the Derby are third-place finisher Dollar Bill and fourth-place finisher Invisible Ink and A P Valentine. Hero's Tribute, who finished last, is off the Derby trail.
"Hero's Tribute had no problems or excuses," Said Ward. "In my opinion, there'll be no Derby for him. We'll try to figure out whatever his physical or psychological problem may be and go from there. The Preakness is a possibility."
The top two finishers from the Arkansas Derby?Balto Star and Jamaican Rum?are headed to the Kentucky Derby, In Balto Star, trainer Todd Pletcher has a horse that has improved by leaps and bounds in a short period of time and has to be given a big chance in Louisville. His weapon is his speed, which means Pletcher has to hope that his horse can get a comfortable trip on the front end in the Derby.
"My first reaction is that we're not going to make any changes with this horse," Pletcher said when asked if he'll try to rate Balto Star. "We'll obviously look at the situation, but anybody who tries to run with us early is not going to have anything left in the end. He has won from a little bit off the pace before, but one of his strengths is that he can get out there and cruise and keep going."
Saturday's California Derby was won by longshot Takin It Deep, who is not even nominated to the Triple Crown. In defeat, Startac and Early Flyer were likely knocked out of the Kentucky Derby picture.
It appears that this year's Derby will have a relatively small field. Other confirmed starters include Street Cry, Express Tour, Thunder Blitz and Fifty Stars. Percy Hope remains a possible starter.
Another Derby starter or two may emerge from this Saturday's Coolmore Lexington at Keeneland, the last major Kentucky Derby prep of the season. Among those slated to run are Illinois Derby winner Distilled, Griffinite, Palmeiro, Global Gait and Turnberry Isle.
Though he'll be a longshot in the Lexington, Turnberry Isle will receive a lot of attention because he represents Lukas' last shot at getting a Derby starter. Lukas has started at least one horse in every Kentucky Derby since 1981 and has sometimes been accused of running poor horses in the race just to keep his record streak alive.
"Turnberry Isle is our only possibility," he said. "He'd have to make a strong showing in that race for us to go on to the Derby. If not, we'll sit this one out and come back strong next year. After being in it for so many years, I'm pretty realistic about it. It sometimes better to sit it out than to be in it. I don't have any problem with not being in the race."