photo courtesy of the Maryland Jockey Club
With five victories in 11 races over 16 years, trainer Bob Baffert clearly knows the route to the Preakness winner’s circle.
“The main key is that it takes a very good horse,” Baffert says.
“Three of the horses I won it with won the Kentucky Derby. The other two were the best horses, but they didn’t have any luck in the Derby.”
A simple explanation, yet many winners and capable also-rans in the first leg of the Triple Crown have been defeated in the Preakness.
But Baffert’s horses have delivered at a remarkable pace at historic Pimlico, and his success has lifted him into a tie for second place in wins with D. Wayne Lukas and Thomas J. Healey. They trail the celebrated Robert Wyndham Walden, who won seven times—including five in a row—between 1875 and 1888.
While Walden’s record has stood for over 120 years, it’s not untouchable. At 59, Baffert is very much in the prime of his hall-of-fame career, and his powerhouse California-based stable typically includes top 3-year-olds. No matter how the Derby plays out, Baffert is likely to make the trip to Maryland if he thinks he has the horsepower.
“The Preakness is probably my favorite of the three races,” he says. “We’re all in the same stakes barn, it’s very laid-back, and they do a great job of taking care of their horsemen.
“The Derby is more intense, and you need a lot more luck. Usually in the Preakness, you have a better chance to run because the field is not so big.”
Since saddling his first Preakness starter, 1996 Derby runner-up Cavonnier, who finished fourth, Baffert has been a force in the race with a total of 12 horses.
Silver Charm followed his Derby win in 1997 with a Preakness triumph. So did Real Quiet in 1998. Baffert secured his third win with Derby disappointment Point Given in 2001 and picked up his fourth in 2002 with War Emblem, who turned the difficult trick of winning the Derby on the lead.
After five years away because he didn’t have the right caliber of horse, Baffert returned to the Preakness in 2009 with the Derby’s second-place finisher, Pioneerof the Nile, who was a well-beaten 11th.
“I’ve gone there with horses I thought would run well, and they haven’t run well,” he says. “Pioneerof the Nile just didn’t run in the Preakness. Some horses can do it. Some horses have the toughness to do it.”
A year later, Baffert was back with the gritty and talented Lookin at Lucky. The Derby favorite had the misfortune to draw the inside post position in the 20-horse field and finished sixth.
“Lookin at Lucky ran really hard in the Derby,” Baffert says. “He probably had the most brutal trip.”
Following a strategy developed through the years, Baffert didn’t immediately commit Lookin at Lucky to the Preakness following the Derby setback.
“You have to give them a full week before you can make up your mind,” he says.
That approach started with Point Given, a colt bred and owned by Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman, who had five wins and three seconds in eight races before finishing fifth in the Derby.
The prince went to Saudi Arabia after the Derby, and his racing manager, Richard Mulhall, had to go out of the country. Every day, Baffert dutifully left messages for Mulhall about his Preakness plans.
“The first day, I said, ‘He looks okay, but I don’t think I’m going to run,’” Baffert recalls. “The third day, I said, ‘He’s still pretty quiet.’ But on Sunday, I left him the message, ‘Call the prince and tell him to be there. We can’t lose.’”