When Bob Baffert scrapes the bottom of his barrel, he sometimes finds gold.
Such is the depth of Baffert’s barn that he was able to win the Kentucky Derby last year with a colt that may have been his third-best 3-year-old: Authentic. Such is the white-haired wizard’s history at Churchill Downs that the faint praise he has accorded Medina Spirit raises suspicions of sandbagging.
Throughout his first pre-Derby interrogation outside Churchill's Barn 33 Monday morning, the Hall of Fame trainer appeared as unburdened by expectations as if he had bet $2 of house money on an exacta of extreme longshots; as if he were already resigned to finishing as an also-ran.
He thanked reporters for their time and joked that he did not expect to see them again for the rest of the week. He said Medina Spirit belonged in the top half of the 20-horse field, but probably not in the top five; that he was “a cut below those top horses” and that he consistently “shows up” as if stumped for a more persuasive attribute.
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This for a horse that has yet to finish worse than second in five starts — four of them graded stakes. This from a trainer seeking a record-breaking seventh Derby victory.
Given the caliber of colt Baffert has brought to the Derby — Real Quiet, Silver Charm, American Pharoah, Justify, etc. — perhaps Baffert is not selling his lone 2021 Derby horse several lengths short. Still, there’s a reason Churchill Downs’ Mike Battaglia reflexively lowers the odds on this trainer’s entries. He knows Baffert will have his horses ready for big races (and that the public will inevitably bet them down anyway).
If Medina Spirit lacks the winter book buzz of stablemate Life Is Good (sidelined by an ankle injury) or the acclaim that accompanied Baffert’s Concert Tour prior to his bewildering third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby, the only Derby horse with a higher speed rating according to TimeformUS is the only horse to beat him in the Santa Anita Derby — Rock Your World.
Plus, this being the Kentucky Derby, with a huge field of 3-year-olds running a mile and a quarter for the first time, there’s always the possibility of chaos to consider.
“Every trainer, every owner, they’re going to go to bed the night before thinking they have a chance to win the Derby,” Baffert said. “Cause it’s happened. We’ve seen it with longshots and stuff. I remember (2009 winner) Mine That Bird, those guys from New Mexico. We went to the trainers’ dinner. . .They said, ‘We don’t really have a chance, Bob, but we’re just here' and this and that. And I said, ‘Well, don’t forget, Real Quiet got beat in New Mexico and he won the Derby.’ And they got all excited, like 'Maybe we’ve got a shot.’ ”
Having given Mine That Bird’s connections cause for hope, Baffert was then cross-examined by his wife, Jill.
“You think they’ve got a shot?” she asked.
“No, they’ve got no shot,” Baffert replied.
Mine That Bird would pay $103.20 on a $2 win ticket, at the time the second-biggest win payoff in the Derby’s history. Though Donerail (1913, $184.90), remains the longest-shot winner, three of the top four Derby payoffs have happened since 2005.
Though his six Derby victories are matched only by Ben Jones — now dead nearly 60 years — Baffert is still sometimes as surprised by the big race as when he first arrived, wide-eyed and narrowly known in 1996 with Cavonnier.
“I wasn’t taken really seriously,” he said. “. When he made the lead, I’ll never forget that feeling. I was not prepared for it. Matter of fact, when they hit the wire, I thought I’d won the Derby. I felt like I’d won the Derby for like two minutes and then they took it away (following a photo finish).
“To this day, that was the worst beat of my life.’’
It was, however, the first of 12 times Baffert has finished in the money in the Derby, more often than any other trainer. Bettors may want to bear that in mind in assessing Medina Spirit.
This article originally appeared on Louisville Courier Journal: Bob Baffert may be selling Kentucky Derby horse Medina Spirit short