LEXINGTON, KY -- Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert was holding a favorable hand of Kentucky Derby contenders last Wednesday. He'd just taken the Santa Anita Derby with upset winner Midnight Interlude, was preparing to saddle highly-favored The Factor in the Arkansas Derby, and had one more horse, Jaycito, pointing toward this Saturday's Coolmore Lexington.
What a difference one week makes.
The Factor flipped his palate, ran seventh in Arkansas, and Jaycito continued to struggle with the foot issues that caused him to miss the Santa Anita Derby. This Wednesday he missed entering the Lexington -- his final shot at a Derby prep -- as well.
"We still have a trio," Baffert offered from his base in California, where both Jaycito and Midnight Interlude remain. Midnight Interlude will ship to Churchill Downs on Thursday to join The Factor, who arrived there April 19 and jogged a mile the next day on the Louisville track.
Jaycito's shipping, however, has been delayed until "sometime next week," Baffert said, and whoever wins the Lexington could make the Victory Gallop colt this year's "bubble" horse, 21st on the graded earnings list of potential contenders for the 20--horse field. He currently ranks 19th with $250,000 in graded earnings from a victory in the 2010 Norfolk Stakes and a runner--up finish last time out in the March 12 San Felipe. Midnight Interlude is seventh with the $600,000 winner's share from the Santa Anita Derby, while The Factor settles in at 17th with $272,500 earned with victories in the San Vincente and Rebel Stakes.
"I wanted him to work before the Lexington and I just couldn't get a breeze into him," Baffert said of his troubled runner. "He's day to day, probably, as far as if he'll run in the Derby, but we're still pointing toward it. The Factor moved great over the track at Churchill today, so that's a plus."
A trainer doesn't want to go into the Kentucky Derby facing uncertainty. He'd rather have that strong, solid feeling of confidence imparted by a horse peaking at just the right moment, all the signs pointing toward a likely victory. That would certainly not be the case with The Factor, a record--setting speedball who failed to rate off the pace in Arkansas, or with Jaycito, who hasn't worked since April 2.
And although Baffert, 58, is maintaining optimism when speaking of his potential contenders ("They're all in it until entry time," he said), the reality of how his runners will fare in the Derby and exactly how many will enter is decidedly less certain than last year, when he came into the race with the 6-5 favorite, eventual 3-year-old champ Lookin at Lucky (he also saddled Conveyance, who finished 15th).
"The Factor got put in a very compromising situation in the Arkansas Derby," Baffert remarked. "He flipped his palate, he didn't rate. They're all born with their own style, and this horse has a free--running style; you just have to let him go."
Baffert has been known to talk about thoroughbreds the way a NASCAR driver praises his favorite vehicle. This sheer admiration and inherent need for speed began in the Hall of Famer's early days when he saddled swift quarter horses. Now the similarly brilliant thoroughbred runners sent out by his stable have blistered track records from New York to California. But all too often that search for impressive staying speed yields a less-satisfactory flash-in-the-pan quickness (at least where the Kentucky Derby is concerned). No one knows this better than the master himself, who has taken three Derby trophies and whose War Emblem was the last speedster to wire the field in 2002. And the preparation for the Derby generally involves attempting to get a speed horse to settle off the pace or at least relax on it, as the race's marathon 1 1/4 miles is more favorable to closers.
That may or may not have been the intention last Saturday when The Factor went into the Arkansas Derby, as jockey Martin Garcia's attempt to rate behind a hotly-contested pace resulted in the dull fade to seventh by the stable star. But the real clarity brought about by that event was a definite realization that this colt runs best when unleashed to display his brilliant speed. And a question of whether the son of War Front will get the Derby distance remains unsettlingly unanswered.
Baffert may not take solace in the fact that his best shot seems to be with Midnight Interlude, a son of War Chant who has just his maiden victory and the Santa Anita Derby score from four career starts, all made this year. But in spite of the uncertainty, he's still doing better than his Hall of Fame compadre D. Wayne Lukas, who didn't come up with a contender this year.
"We're just happy to be here at this point, and we still have a long way to go," the trainer said. "You have to take a good horse to the Kentucky Derby, but you wind up with a great horse if he wins it."