LOUISVILLE, Ky. — He’s targeting a record-equaling sixth Kentucky Derby win, but champion trainer Bob Baffert believes the Churchill Downs showpiece is “wide open” this year.
The 66-year-old saddles favorite Game Winner — installed at the head of the market after the withdrawal of Omaha Beach — alongside Roadster and Improbable.
But the Arizona handler, who won the Derby with Justify last year en route to a second Triple Crown in four years after the success of American Pharoah, is unsure which of his trio is the most likely to succeed.
“I’m not armed like I was last year,” Baffert told Aly Vance for CNN’s Winning Post show Thursday.
“Game Winner was a champion two-year-old, but I don’t know how the weather is going to affect him — he comes from off the pace and might have some traffic problems.
“I love Roadster, but he’s got to prove something, he’s lightly raced; and Improbable, if he doesn’t get too excited — they have to handle crowds — the way he’s been training he loves this track but he needs to break [out of the stalls].
“One day I like one and then I’ll change my mind. I think Improbable, we don’t know if he’ll get the mile-and-a-quarter — but that Game Winner he’s tough. I don’t know how good Roadster is. I don’t care which one wins as long as one does.
“I think this is a tough Derby, it’s wide open. There’s really nice horses in there.”
The leading contender outside of the Baffert trio is Maximum Security, trained by Jason Servis, while Haikal’s late withdrawal with a hoof abscess has reduced the field to 19.
Baffert won his first Kentucky Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm and followed up with Real Quiet the following year, War Emblem in 2002, American Pharaoh in 2015 and Justify last year.
“It’s the greatest race in America and to be that lucky, with 150,000 people at Churchill Downs with the Twin Spires, it’s magical,” he added.
“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, what makes it so great is you get this bond with the clients and the owners. You make great friendships from it and I think that’s what horse racing does, you meet really interesting people especially at this level. I’ve met presidents — I’m still waiting to meet the Queen.
“Now I like to see the clients, I like to see how giddy they get, they’re so excited, it’s funny, a lot of them forget their wives, their husbands, I stay back and make sure everybody gets in because it’s pretty wild.”
The key to the Derby is having a horse with speed, according to Baffert.
“I’m looking for a horse that looks like he has speed that can go a mile,” he said. “A horse that looks like he can go a mile-and-a-quarter, mile-and-a-half, they usually don’t have the speed, there’s 20 horses and they’re going to get in trouble.
“Turning for home I want them up close, that’s how you win the Kentucky Derby.
“That first 100 yards is just a lot of anxiety, they have to break away from the gate. I remember last year [Irish trainer] Aidan O’Brien asked me if I had any advice. I said, ‘It’s muddy, sloppy, 20 horses and those jockeys on a big day like this, they’re savages.
“You’ve got to get away from the gate, if you don’t and they come in front of you it’s going to be brutal. If that happens get to your car and beat the traffic out. That’s why the first 100 yards is just so critical.”
Another win for Baffert would put him alongside Ben A. Jones — from 1938-1952 — as the only man to have trained six Derby winners, but he says it never gets old.
“It’s a magical experience, if you’re lucky enough to win you’re like, ‘Wow I’m the luckiest guy in the world.’
“If there’s a heaven it’s in that winner’s circle.”