Bodemeister's brilliant run at Kentucky Derby goes for naught

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Bodemeister posted one of the greatest losses in the 138-year history of the Kentucky Derby on Saturday.

Some consolation for trainer Bob Baffert.

"Oh, it hurts," the three-time Derby winner told Yahoo! Sports. "Believe me."

Bodemeister ran faster and farther without cracking than any horse in the last quarter century in this 1¼-mile test of stamina, heart and talent. But in the end, the colt finally submitted to the forces of nature that rule this race without remorse. Bodemeister – sent off as the 4-1 favorite after an avalanche of late money lowered his odds from 6-1 – could not hold off the furious closing kick of I'll Have Another, a 15-1 shot ridden by obscure Derby rookie Mario Gutierrez.

In a fitting fiesta, a Mexican jockey ruled racing on Cinco de Mayo. Yet many people walked away from the Twin Spires raving about the effort from Bodemeister, who nearly outran the rules of racing before being passed in the last dozen strides.

"He ran too well to lose," Baffert said.

As it turned out, this was a doomed trip from the start. Maybe it was the curse of Apollo – no horse has won the Derby without racing as a 2-year-old since Apollo in 1882. But more tangibly, this race was lost as Bodemeister flew around the Churchill Downs oval and the sizzling fractions were posted on the toteboard.

Baffert looked at the clock and despaired.

"I knew we were going to be in trouble," he said.

In fact, Baffert was troubled from the moment the connections of speedball Trinniberg decided to enter the Derby. The pure sprinter had no business in the race, and his extreme natural speed changed the dynamic of the race. Because of him, Bodemeister would not be able to get away cleanly and relax on the lead here the way he did in dominating the Arkansas Derby by 9½ lengths last month.

But in something of a surprise, Bodemeister started even faster than Trinniberg, who would fade to 17th. Bodemeister wasn't chasing anyone. The other 19 horses were all chasing him.

Watching the race, Baffert's wife, Jill, said to Bob, "There's no way."

Their colt was running too fast, too soon. There was no way Bodemeister could maintain the screaming pace he set in leading from the starting gate. Veteran jockey Mike Smith had no choice but to let the precocious colt showcase his brilliant natural speed – holding him back would have been useless.

[Related: I'll Have Another makes a name for himself with Kentucky Derby win]

But it takes a tepid pace to steal the Derby on the front end. Baffert knows that as well as anyone, having won the 2002 Derby with pace-setting War Emblem. On that day, War Emblem got away with fractions that were significantly slower than Bodemeister set Saturday.

Horses cannot burn through the opening stages of this race and expect it to hold. It just doesn't work that way. It would take a super horse, a freak, the ghost of 1985 wire-to-wire speedball Spend A Buck, to withstand the ruthless Churchill stretch.

Bodemeister smoked the first quarter-mile in 22.32 seconds, the half-mile in 45.39, and three-quarters of a mile in 1:09.80. Those opening fractions were the fastest since 2005, when Spanish Chestnut burned through them in 22.28, 45.38 and 1:09.59.

Spanish Chestnut wilted to 16th that day. That's what happens to colts who sprint out of the gate.

Yet as they turned for home, Bodemeister was not wilting. He was holding on. In fact, almost unbelievably, he was pulling away. He opened a three-length lead at the top of the stretch. The impossible suddenly seemed possible.

"I thought we had it," Smith said.

Nobody was coming toward Bodemeister. Baffert, watching just five weeks after suffering a heart attack in Dubai, started to feel that old familiar euphoria. He just had to manage it.

Few trainers have experienced as much stretch-drive drama in the Triple Crown as Baffert, winner of nine races in the sport's marquee series. He lost the Derby by an agonizing nose in 1996 with Cavonnier, then turned the tables and won by a thrilling head the next year with Silver Charm. In 1998, Baffert won the Derby again with Real Quiet by half a length, but then lost the Triple Crown five weeks later by a nose in a photo finish.

Now his horse was passed again deep in the stretch, this time inside the final furlong – the Hall of Famer's third runner-up finish here. The fact that Bodemeister prolonged the drama that long was a credit to him.

"He's so brilliant," Baffert said. "He's such a good horse, one of the best horses I've ever brought here."

If Bodemeister comes out of the Derby OK, he'll likely be pointed to the Preakness – a race Baffert has won five times. The colt would face I'll Have Another again there, and at a shorter distance (1 3/16 miles) Bodemeister could well have the edge.

But here's the hard truth: The Preakness is small consolation compared to the ultimate prize in American racing. The Derby is for immortality.

That's part of the reason why Baffert's voice caught when talking about the race. But the bigger reason was this: Owner Ahmed Zayat had named the horse for Baffert's 7-year-old son, Bode. The trainer walked over from the barns to the paddock before the race holding hands with Bode, who was heavily emotionally invested in the horse and in this race.

"I was very emotional because I wanted to win it for my client," Baffert said. "But also for my son."

Health willing, Bodemeister will win other big races in his career. But on the first Saturday in May, he was merely one of the greatest losers in Kentucky Derby history.

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