Baffert’s Simple Method Leads to Preakness Success
Dozens of factors can go into winning a major horse race.
Yet Bob Baffert said there’s one vital principle behind his amazing run of seven victories in the Preakness Stakes (G1) since 1997.
Quite simply, he arrives in Baltimore with the best horse.
“The real reason is that I always brought the best horse there,” the 66-year-old Hall of Fame trainer and two-time Triple Crown winner explained. “When I took horses that were a little suspect, they didn’t run well.”
Baffert will bid for his record-breaking eighth Preakness victory May 18 at Pimlico Race Course when he saddles 5-2 morning-line favorite Improbable in the middle leg of the Triple Crown. The victory would free Baffert from the tie for the top spot he shares with R.W. Walden, whose last Preakness win came more than 130 years ago, in 1888.
It would be yet another impressive line on the résumé for Baffert, who owns the most Triple Crown wins with 15, but the California-based trainer has little interest in padding the record books for the sake of his ego.
“The record doesn’t mean anything to me,” he said. “Records only mean you’ve been in the game way too long.”
Instead, Baffert said he still derives as much excitement from winning the Preakness as he did 22 years ago when Silver Charm provided him with his first taste of Triple Crown glory in the land of the Black-Eyed Susans.
“There’s not a better feeling than walking across that track for the trophy presentation at the Preakness,” Baffert said. “It’s one of the great feelings in racing.
“The Preakness is a very exciting race because it’s the race we have the most fun at because we’re all stabled together. The pressure of the Derby is gone. It’s not as intense. The city of Baltimore embraces it. You get just as nervous as you do at the Derby.”
That level of excitement and success at Pimlico is surely unrivaled by any other trainer. Improbable, a son of City Zip owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, and Starlight Racing, will be just his 20th Preakness starter. In contrast, fellow Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas, who has six Preakness wins, will be saddling his record-extending 44th starter Saturday in Robert C. Baker and William L. Mack’s Market King.
It’s an incredible batting average, and Lukas knows it’s anything but a quirky statistic.
“What’s special about Bob is that he recruits like crazy. He’s the (coach) Nick Saban and Alabama football of horse racing. He gets the players,” Lukas said. “But that in and of itself does not guarantee success. A lot of guys get good horses, but you have to know what to do with them and how to manage them. Like in football and basketball, a lot of great players never reach their potential because they are mismanaged or misplaced. Bob is a master at placing his horses. He’s arguably the best trainer in the world. When he shows up, you say, ‘Circle that one.'”
In an era when many trainers view racing their horses on two weeks’ rest with the same disdain as a dieter places on an ice cream sundae, Lukas also believes that he and Baffert have trained long enough that they are not prisoners to new training methods.
“Baffert and I have that philosophy that horses are bred to run. Lead them over there and run them,” Lukas said. “The good ones handle two weeks’ rest. The average ones show up. The poor ones don’t handle it. So if you have a good one who has some talent who gets over the ground well and has efficiency of motion and is healthy and sound, coming back in two weeks is no problem.”
Baffert said the path he and Lukas followed to Thoroughbred racing comes in handy at the Preakness with the quick turnaround.
“Wayne and I came up from the Quarter Horse ranks, so we had trials and finals on the same day, so we had the mindset of having our horses ready and keeping them fit,” Baffert said. “A lot of trainers, they don’t feel comfortable running back in two weeks because they give them a lot of time before a big race. They worry about the bounce. I never knew what a bounce was until I got to Thoroughbreds. They don’t use that word in the Quarter Horse industry. I feel if your horse is fit and healthy, I don’t see any problem in running back.”
That Baffert is 5-for-5 in the Preakness with winners of the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (G1) is perhaps the most impressive part of his record.
“He’s a fabulous horse trainer. He knows his horses,” said WinStar Farm president Elliott Walden, who was the racing manager of the group that owned Baffert’s 2018 Triple Crown winner, Justify . “He has his horses fit. They are fit going into the Derby, and they are fit coming out of it. He doesn’t exhaust them. Justify had no published works between the Derby and his win in the Preakness. He goes by his gut with them.”
Because of the way his top horses exited the Kentucky Derby, Baffert lists the Preakness as “the easiest” to win of the three Triple Crown races.
“If your horse wins the Derby and you come back in two weeks, they are ready to run. You do not have to do much with them,” Baffert said. “It’s always been the easiest of the three for me.”
Improbable, bred in Kentucky by St. George Farm and G. Watts Humphrey Jr., was moved up from fifth to fourth in the Kentucky Derby after the disqualification of Maximum Security. He will be looking to follow the same script as two Baffert horses who went down to defeat in the Kentucky Derby and rebounded in the Preakness.
Point Given (2001), Baffert’s third Preakness victor, was the first to follow that route after a puzzling fifth-place finish in the Run for the Roses.
“My other two Preakness winners were horses that could have or should have won the Derby, Point Given and Lookin At Lucky ,” he said. “Lookin At Lucky got completely wiped out in the Derby, and Point Given showed he was the dominant horse in the Preakness.”
Karl Watson, Mike Pegram, and Paul Weitman’s Lookin At Lucky gave Baffert his most satisfying Preakness win in 2010 when he followed up a troubled sixth-place finish from the rail as the favorite in the Kentucky Derby with a three-quarter-length triumph at Pimlico.
“I wanted it to be a redemption race,” Baffert said. “Lookin At Lucky was roughed up twice at the start by horses who finished in front of him. I wanted to win the Preakness, and the reaction to his win was great. The owners were so happy, they were crying. Classics bring out the emotion in people.”
Improbable is following a typical pattern for Baffert. His only work for the Preakness was a leisurely :51 4/5 half-mile breeze at Churchill Downs May 13, the 59th-fastest of 69 works at the distance. He’ll be ridden in the Preakness by Mike Smith, Justify’s regular rider, who replaces Irad Ortiz Jr. and gets aboard the Kentucky-bred for the first time.
Bought for $200,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September Yearling Sale from Taylor Made Sales Agency, Improbable was second in the Arkansas Derby (G1) and a division of the Rebel Stakes (G2) prior to the Kentucky Derby and has earnings of $769,520 from three wins and two seconds in six starts. Taylor Made paid $110,000 for the son of the A.P. Indy mare Rare Event from the Lane’s End lot at the 2016 Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale.
“Sometimes you don’t have to do a lot. We do so much to get them ready for the Derby that you just have to back off a bit,” Baffert said. “I’m excited about Improbable, though they always overhype my horses. The local horse (Alwaysmining) looks tough. There are some nice ones in there. I’m not going in like last year with Justify. I have a good horse, but so do a lot of other people.”
Then again, no one else in the field knows as much about winning the Preakness as Bob Baffert, which in the end just might make all the difference in the world—once again.
Romans adds Preakness Stakes longshot Everfast to the mix
Trainer Dale Romans and Calumet Farm — two entities never afraid to take a shot in a major race — made Everfast a late edition to the Preakness Stakes field ahead of Wednesday’s post-position draw.
A son of Take Charge Indy, Everfast will run back from a fifth-place effort on the Kentucky Derby undercard in Churchill Downs’ Pat Day Mile (G3). This season, the colt also ran second in Gulfstream Park’s Holy Bull (G2), eighth in the Fountain of Youth (G2) and ninth in the Florida Derby (G1).
Everfast’s addition brings the Preakness field to 13 runners, the largest group to contest the second leg of the Triple Crown series at Pimlico Race Course since a full field of 14 headed postward in 2011.
The Maryland Jockey Club confirmed Everfast’s entry. Romans wasn’t immediately available for comment.
Joel Rosario will be aboard Everfast, a 2017 Keeneland January purchase who hammered for $47,000. The horse’s lone win in 10 starts came on debut Aug. 12 at Ellis Park. Since then, he also has one second and a third.
Everfast’s top effort in the Holy Bull came at 128-1 and completed a $101.70 exacta for a $1 bet when Harvey Wallbanger flew late to win it after a pace collapse.
Expect to see Everfast at 30-1 or higher on the Preakness morning line.
The post-position draw will happen between 4 and 6 p.m. ET.
Alwaysmining a formidable Preakness Stakes house horse
Despite a six-race win streak, five of them in stakes, the last three of them as an overwhelming favorite, Alwaysmining figures to sport relatively generous odds when he makes his graded debut in Saturday’s Preakness Stakes.
For Greg and Caroline Bentley of Runnymede Racing, it’s a case of been there, done that.
In 2014 the Bentleys, proprietors of Runnymede Farm in Unionville, Pa., upset the Arlington Million (G1) with 11-1 long shot Hardest Core – a horse they bought as a birthday present for their now 35-year-old son, Andrew, in whose name he ran.
“We bought Hardest Core because we wanted to race him in the Maryland Hunt Cup,” Caroline Bentley said. “We thought maybe he was a little young to start [jumping] so maybe we should race him on the flat for a little while. It was just a really happy accident.”
There were similarly no grand expectations for Alwaysmining when the Bentleys purchased him privately from Jim McIngvale following a maiden special weight victory last June at Laurel Park. They had wanted to add a dirt presence to their portfolio and were looking for a horse they could watch run locally over the winter.
“We’re breeding horses and we want to run our homebreds, but we were looking for some racehorses to kind of fill in the gaps,” Caroline Bentley said. “We run locally, so we were looking for Maryland-bred horses, Pennsylvania-bred horses. He looked nice, but we weren’t looking for a world-beater, so it really surprised us.”
Alwaysmining ran fifth in the first start for Runnymede, who then moved him to trainer Kelly Rubley. Seventh in his debut for Rubley in the Laurel Futurity on turf, Alwaysmining hasn’t lost since. He capped his juvenile season beating fellow Preakness contender Win Win Win in the Heft Stakes, then swept the seven-furlong Miracle Wood, 1 1/16-mile Private Terms and 1 1/8-mile Federico Tesio to open 2019.
While the Private Terms marked his first try around two turns, the Tesio was a command performance for Alwaysmining. A front-running winner to that point, he showed a new dimension sitting behind horses before taking over and cruising to an 11 ½-length romp, earning an automatic berth in the Preakness.
“He’s increasing each person’s expectations as we go. No one takes for granted what his potential can be, but he seems to be finding himself and growing into and being proud of and confident in his capabilities,” Greg Bentley said. “Of course, we don’t know going into the Preakness what’s next but we think he does represent Maryland racing well and we’re proud and appreciative of that given the tradition of Maryland racing that we’re glad to participate in and be part of.”
Eight Maryland-breds have won the Preakness, starting with Cloverbrook in 1877. The last to do it was Deputed Testamony, also the Tesio winner who was sent off at 14-1 in the 1983 Middle Jewel of the Triple Crown.
“Maryland has such a wonderful tradition and you feel it around here. There’s so much pride and legacy,” Caroline Bentley said. “It’s a wonderful atmosphere.”
Alwaysmining is one of five horses the Bentleys have with Rubley at Fair Hill Training Center in Elkton, Md., a half-hour south of their Pennsylvania farm. CEO, President and Chairman of the Board of Bentley Systems, one of the world’s largest privately held software companies since its inception in 1984, Greg Bentley got involved in racing as a hobby to balance work demands.
Runnymede also campaigned 2017 American St. Leger (G3) winner Postulation, but Alwaysmining represents its first attempt in a Triple Crown race.
“We happen to know that a horse can come from nowhere and accomplish a lot,” Greg Bentley said. “Our son, Andrew, is a great fan of racing and he keeps track of everything. Maybe that’s the source of our good luck, because we must say it’s luck.
“We have had the experience of being a long shot and getting there,” he added, “so we’re not going to say that it can’t happen.”
Justify’s owners head to Preakness Stakes with another favorite
Improbable, who is expected to be installed as the morning-line favorite following Wednesday’s post-position draw for Saturday’s 144th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico Race Course, went back to the track for a mile gallop Tuesday at sunrise, the day after working a leisurely half-mile in 51.80 seconds at Churchill Downs.
“He galloped a very light mile,” said Jimmy Barnes, top assistant to trainer Bob Baffert. “We’re ready to go.”
Barnes said Improbable will have a walk day Wednesday before shipping out to fly to Baltimore. Baffert returned to California after the work and will probably arrive in Baltimore Thursday evening, he said.
Improbable, the Arkansas Derby (G1) runner-up who was placed fourth in the Kentucky Derby, could give Baffert a record-breaking eighth Preakness victory. The Hall of Fame trainer is currently in a tie for most Preakness wins for a trainer with Robert Wyndham Walden, who won the race seven times from 1875-1888.
Baffert’s Preakness victories came with his five Kentucky Derby winners (Silver Charm, 1997; Real Quiet, 1998; War Emblem, 2002 and Triple Crown winners American Pharoah, 2015, and Justify, 2018), plus Point Given in 2001 and Lookin At Lucky in 2010.
Improbable is owned by WinStar Farm, China Horse Club International and Starlight Racing, forming much of the same ownership group that campaigned Justify.
Starlight co-founder Jack Wolf, a Louisville, Ky. resident, was on hand to watch Improbable’s work Monday.
“It’s easier to get seating,” he observed cheerfully, when asked the difference in the experience going to the Preakness this year and last. “But anytime you’re the favorite, yeah, I’m going to the Preakness.
“Justify was one of a kind. To at least have a horse in this race – and have the favorite – it’s so much fun up there anyway in Maryland. Bob loves going up to that place also,” he added. “You’ve got to think that he had three horses in the Derby and this is the only one he’s taking. If he likes him, I like him.”
Improbable will be ridden in the Preakness for the first time by Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who was Justify’s rider.
Wolf said last year’s Preakness was somewhat surreal because of the fog that made it impossible to see vast sections of the race until Justify’s head emerged at the top of the stretch, with the Derby winner then having to fend off Bravazo and Tenfold to narrowly prevail in a three-horse dash to the wire.
“You really couldn’t see anything until the head of the stretch,” Wolf said. “And then I saw that white blaze and said, ‘Ooooh!’ Then at the finish I said, ‘Oooh, oooh.’ I talked to Mike after the race. He never thought he was in trouble. But half a length is half a length.”