LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert hopes he’s celebrating in the winner’s circle at the Kentucky Derby. He just doesn’t know which horse or owners would join him.
After all, the trainer has the two top favourites for Saturday’s race.
American Pharoah, owned by Egyptian Ahmed Zayat, is the early 5-2 favourite for the 141st Derby off an eight-length victory in the Arkansas Derby.
Dortmund is the 3-1 second choice. He’s owned by India-born Kaleem Shah, now a U.S. citizen whose pride for his adopted country is evident in the red, white and blue silks his chestnut colt wears.
“Coming in here we feel really strong,” Baffert said. “If you get beat, the fall is pretty steep.”
American Pharoah dominated his competition leading to the Derby, winning his last four races by a combined 22 1/4 lengths. Baffert calls him “brilliant,” but he’s yet to be tested in the kind of fractious conditions the Derby offers. He will be ridden by Victor Espinoza, who won last year aboard California Chrome.
“If American Pharoah breaks a step slow, he’s going to find himself in a situation that he has not faced before,” said Mark Casse, who trains 30-1 shot Danzig Moon.
Dortmund stands an imposing 5 feet, 8 inches from the ground to near his shoulder blades and is a son of 2008 Derby winner Big Brown. He is undefeated in six races against tougher competition than his stablemate faced. Martin Garcia works out American Pharoah in the mornings but rides Dortmund in the race.
“This is an exciting, exciting field,” Zayat said. “It’s fun to have the best of the best running against each other.”
A full field of 20 was reduced to 19 for 1 1/4-mile race after El Kabeir was scratched Saturday. His left front foot was bothering him Friday and the colt trained by John Terranova was sore coming out of his stall the next day. His absence means Calvin Borel, a three-time Derby winner, won’t ride.
Todd Pletcher brings three horses to the race: Carpe Diem, the 8-1 third choice; Florida Derby winner Materiality; and Itsaknockout, fittingly running on the same day as the Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight in Las Vegas.
“We’re ready,” Pletcher said. “Let’s go.”
Materiality didn’t run as s 2-year-old and no horse since Apollo in 1882 has won the Derby without racing as a sophomore. His pedigree suggests he could overcome the jinx: his sire Afleet Alex won the Preakness and Belmont in 2005.
Blue Grass winner Carpe Diem cost $1.6 million and a win in the Derby (worth $1.4 million) would help his owners recoup most of their investment. John Velazquez clearly saw something in the colt because he chose to ride Carpe Diem instead of Materiality in the Derby. But he will have to overcome the No. 2 post; getting away from the starting gate quickly could minimize the chance of getting trapped inside.
This year’s field is deep and talented, and absent Baffert’s dynamic duo, there are other horses with solid credentials who in a different year would be more highly regarded.
—Mubtaahij, an Ireland-bred trying to win the Derby by preparing outside the U.S. and then travelling halfway around the world to reach Louisville. He won the UAE Derby by eight lengths and his South African trainer Mike de Kock is highly regarded.
—Firing Line, a colt that twice had photo-finish defeats to Dortmund before winning the Sunland Derby by 14 lengths in track-record time.
—International Star, a versatile colt that swept the trio of Derby preps at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans. He has tactical speed to get good position, helpful in a crowded race. “He’s razor sharp and rarin’ to go,” trainer Mike Maker said. “Show up at 5:45 tomorrow and he’ll put all your questions to bed.”
—Frosted, the Wood Memorial winner, is owned by a member of the ruling family of Dubai. Godolphin Racing is 0 for 7 in previous Derby tries, but this time Sheikh Mohammad had his horse prep in the U.S.
—Upstart beat Frosted in the Holy Bull and finished second behind Materiality in the Florida Derby.
Baffert jokes that it’s been so long since the last of his three Derby victories in 2002 that he doesn’t remember. He knows, though, what a horse must do if it is to wear the garland of red roses.
“You need to get a decent post, break well, get the trip,” he said. “It’s the toughest field I’ve been involved in since Silver Charm (in 1997).”
American Pharoah, Dortmund, Carpe Diem and Materiality have combined to win 17 of 19 races, including a 10-0 mark this year.
“The hype is over with,” said Ken Ramsey, who owns International Star. “It’s time for potential to develop into performance.”
Beth Harris, The Associated Press
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