By Dick Jerardi
Bob Baffert was pretty sure he was never going to get another chance to win the Kentucky Derby after his first runner, Cavonnier, lost America’s race by a nose in 1996. Nearly a quarter-century later, the legendary trainer has now won the Derby a record-tying six times.
It only took one year for Baffert to prove himself wrong when Silver Charm won the Derby in 1997. Real Quiet won it the next year and then, after his big favorite Point Given, was beaten in 2001, Baffert won it the next year with longshot War Emblem.
So, after thinking he would never win it, Baffert won it three times in six years. Then did not win it again for 13 years.
He was wondering if he would ever win it again when his horses famously ran second in all the 2012 Triple Crown races. The night of that Belmont Stakes, after Union Rags came inside the Baffert-trained Paynter to win at Belmont Park, Baffert stopped by a table at nearby King Umberto’s and asked: “Is there a Triple Crown for seconds?’’
No, but there is one for a horse that finishes first in all three races. Baffert could not have known that night that three years later, the night of the 2015 Belmont Stakes the menu at King Umberto would feature “American Pharoah” – “lobster, filet of sole, scallops, shrimp, clams, mussels scampi style with a touch of marinara” – and a “Triple Crown of Veal.”
Nor could he have known that he would win the Derby three more times in six years, starting in 2015 with American Pharoah, then 2018 with Justify and, finally, Authentic in 2020.
So, during those 13 long years when trainers, many with much smaller outfits, were winning at Churchill Downs, Baffert waited. It was Barclay Tagg, John Servis, John Shirrefs, and Michael Matz. It was Carl Nafzger (for a second time), Rick Dutrow, Chip Wooley, Todd Pletcher, Graham Motion and Baffert’s Southern California rival Doug O’Neill. It was Shug McGaughey and Art Sherman. It just wasn’t Baffert. Until it was _ again and again and again.
So, in separate acts, Baffert has dominated the Derby. For any trainer to win it three times in six years is an incredible feat. For a trainer to win the Derby three times in six years twice in this era of gigantic fields, seems almost impossible.
The legendary trainer Ben Jones also won the Derby six times. He won his six from 1938 to 1952, with such racing immortals as Triple Crown winners Whirlaway and Citation. Four of the wins were for Calumet Farm which completely dominated the sport in an era where the average Derby field in those six years was 12 horses.
Baffert, incredibly, has won the Derby with six different owners. His first five Derby winners all won the Preakness. Two of them, Silver Charm and Real Quiet, just missed the Belmont and Triple Crown.
Three years after that night at King Umberto and that Triple Crown of seconds, Baffert won the Triple Crown with American Pharoah and, three years later, with Justify.
He can’t win a third Triple Crown in this bizarre year, but he could win the Preakness for the eighth time in three weeks. His five Derby winners and two Derby losers that deserved better, Point Given and Lookin at Lucky, all came back two weeks later to win the Preakness. Baffert has also won the Belmont Stakes three times, giving him 16 Triple Crown race wins, a record all his own.