Before Bob Baffert won the Kentucky Derby for the first time, he lost.
Oh brother did he lose. Cavonnier, 1996, remember?
Sure, he's won the world's great horse race three times. Only three other trainers have won more in 140 runnings. And, the Hall of Famer is pumped for a fourth with the two favorites for Saturday's Derby, unbeaten Dortmund and the sweet-striding American Pharoah.
Seize the moment is Baffert's mantra. Don't think about those glorious wins by Silver Charm in `97, Real Quiet in `98 and War Emblem in `02. And for sure, don't even mention the losses. Three of them with favorites, one by a nose, and another with the horse he calls the best he's ever trained. Of course, that tune could change by Saturday night.
Some of Baffert's coulda, woulda, shulda Derbys.
1. Cavonnier, 1996: Showing up at Churchill Downs with his first Derby starters (Semoran was the other), Baffert begins what has turned into an annual spring break at Barn 33. He's not the main attraction - that would be favorite Unbridled's Song and his trainer Jim Ryerson. But those who chat with the white-haired, former quarter-horse trainer from Arizona come away smiling from one-liners and with a good story. The race? Cavonnier has the lead, then D. Wayne Lukas' Grindstone pulls alongside and there's a duel to the finish. Too close to call. Photo. Baffert thinks he wins. Then he isn't sure. Then the official results: Grindstone takes it by a nose in the closest of calls. Even after three failed Triple Crown attempts in the Belmont Stakes, the trainer still calls this ''the toughest beat of my career.''
2. Point Given, 2001: Not only does Baffert now have two Derby wins, he's saddling the 9-5 favorite in a bid for No. 3. Point Given enters the race off a win in the Santa Anita Derby. Starting from the outside post on a hot, humid day, Point Given doesn't appear to like the hard racing surface, has to run hard to stay in contention early, gets as close as second but fades to fifth as Monarchos powers home to victory. Point Given goes on to win the Preakness, Belmont Stakes, Haskell Invitational and Travers and is voted Horse of the Year. Baffert has said if there ever was a horse that should have won the Triple Crown that didn't, it's Point Given.
3. Bodemeister, 2012: Five weeks after a heart attack in Dubai, the trainer is at Churchill Downs to watch his 4-1 favorite Bodemeister. The horse takes the lead early, opens up by three lengths and looks like a winner before 15-1 long shot I'll Have Another blows past him in the final sixteenth-of-a-mile and wins by 1 1/2 lengths.
It's the third time in four years owner Ahmed Zayat finishes second in the Derby. He also owned `09 and `11 runners-up, Pioneerof the Nile and Nehro. The owner sends out American Pharoah, El Kabeir and Mr. Z on Saturday.
4. Pioneerof the Nile, 2009: Enters with a four-race win streak. The 6-1 third-choice leaves from post 15 and moves into second, a half-length behind pace-setter Join in the Dance with a quarter-mile to go. But that's as close as he gets because 50-1 shot Mine That Bird is completing a remarkable run from 12th to first, leaving Pioneerof the Nile 6 3/4 lengths back in second. Baffert, like just about everyone else, has no idea what horse was zooming into the lead.
5. Lookin At Lucky, 2010: The chance to win is lost three days before the race, when the colt draws the inside post. Expected favorite Eskendereya had been withdrawn earlier in the week, and Lookin At Lucky is the lukewarm 6-1 top choice. However, the 2-year-old champion is roughed up at the start, gets bumped into the rail early on and it's over. Super Saver wins, Lookin At Lucky runs sixth.
''I quit watching him after the first bump,'' Baffert says after the race. ''He was done.''
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