Barring an unforeseen circumstance, both my heart and my money are going to be behind Pioneerof The Nile in the Kentucky Derby. There are a few reasons to be concerned about him, but I am sold on the Santa Anita Derby. I like him for several reasons, but the biggest is quite simply because of his trainer, Bob Baffert. Baffert is my favorite part of my favorite sport, and I find him almost impossible not to cheer for.
Baffert’s record is impressive even though he hasn’t really been on the scene for long. He made his Derby debut in 1996 when Cavonnier finished a close second and Semoran was 14th. He bounced back very nicely, winning both the Derby and the Preakness the next year with the great Silver Charm. To prove it was no fluke, he came back and won the same two races the next year with Real Quiet. He was also third in 1998 with Indian Charlie to dominate the trifecta . He was competitive the next three years, though he didn’t win another Derby. He should have in 2001 with the incredibly impressive Point Given. That horse bounced back to win the Preakness, the Belmont, and every other three year old race of note that year. He won again in 2002 withe front running War Emblem, and he added the Preakness as well to bring his total of Classics to eight. He’s had five runners since, but he has had little to show for them, and this represents his best chance since 2002.
Beyond just the Derby, Baffert has accomplished an incredible amount in his relatively short career. He’s won seven Breeders’ Cup races and two Dubai World Cups. Point Given was horse of the year. No trainer has ever won more Santa Anita Derbies. The guy is the real deal.
Baffert is the Bruce Pearl of horse racing. He’s never met a camera he didn’t like, and never heard a question he wouldn’t answer. He’s likable, funny, controversial without being ridiculous, and he just makes the sport more fun. He’s definitely had his ups and downs, but he avoids serious trouble, and he seems to run a relatively clean stable. His horses are usually ready for the biggest of days. His appeal often sees his horses getting bet down more than they probably should be, but such is the price of success. He has a first, a second, and a third in the Derby with Santa Anita Derby winners in the past, and I look for him to add to that record this year.