LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is absent from Churchill Downs, and his Barn 33, as soon as the epicenter of the bottom throughout Derby week, is oddly silent, however because the 148th working of the Kentucky Derby attracts nearer, the two-time Triple Crown-winning coach is hardly forgotten.
The colts he skilled till the tip of March, Messier and Taiba, can be entrance of thoughts amongst informal followers and horseplayers on Saturday and really probably on the entrance of the pack after the gates of America’s most well-known race open.
Baffert is serving a 90-day suspension handed down by Kentucky regulators after Medina Spirit, the obvious winner of final yr’s Derby, failed a drug take a look at and was disqualified.
The ongoing horse opera now has a brand new main man: Tim Yakteen. He is a former assistant and longtime buddy of Baffert and is aware of the Hall of Famer’s system effectively.
“I sort of had a lottery ticket dropped in my lap,” Yakteen, 57, mentioned, “and I’m just trying to cash it in.”
This is his first Derby as a head coach, a milestone that he conceded could possibly be as nerve-racking as it's thrilling. Messier and Taiba are contenders with comparable front-running kinds and can be ridden by Hall of Fame jockeys — John Velazquez aboard Messier and Mike Smith on Taiba.
“I was hoping to try and keep a low profile,” mentioned Yakteen, who was born in Germany whereas his father was serving within the army and moved to the United States at 18. “That might not be as easily accomplished as I would be hoping.”
Messier (8-1 within the morning line) is the extra seasoned of the pair, a two-time stakes winner who has by no means completed worse than second. But the undefeated Taiba (12-1) is essentially the most intriguing colt within the 20-horse area.
He is making an attempt to win the Derby after solely two begins, a feat achieved solely as soon as earlier than, by a horse named Leonatus in 1883. Taiba gained his debut race by greater than seven lengths in March, then blew previous Messier within the stretch to win the Santa Anita Derby by two and 1 / 4 lengths in April.
Asmussen and Brown are nonetheless looking for their first Derby victories.
Despite their monumental success within the sport, the veteran trainers Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown are nonetheless wanting so as to add Derby victories to their intensive résumés.
Asmussen, 56, grew to become the profession chief amongst trainers in North America when he gained his 9,446th race in 2021, and he has gained eight Breeders’ Cup races, two Preakness Stakes and one Belmont Stakes. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
In 2020, he surpassed Dale Romans for essentially the most profession victories amongst trainers at Churchill Downs. And but he has one way or the other by no means gained a Derby in 23 tries. Nehro completed second in 2011, and Lookin at Lee adopted go well with in 2017. Curlin, the horse of the yr in 2007, completed third that yr. Gun Runner, one other horse of the yr who's proving himself as a stallion, siring this yr’s entrants Taiba and Cyberknife, completed third in 2016.
This yr, Asmussen can have one other stellar shot with Epicenter, the Louisiana Derby winner who's 7-2 on the morning line and could possibly be the favourite come submit time.
Asked if he was nervous this time round, Asmussen laughed. “Well, I’m not running,” he mentioned.
Brown, 43, additionally is aware of about Derby woes. Despite successful 15 Breeders’ Cup races and incomes the Eclipse Award for excellent coach 4 years in a row, he's 0 for 7 within the Run for the Roses. His finest end got here in 2018, with Good Magic ending second.
Brown has maybe his strongest contender but in Zandon, the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes final month, who's the morning-line favourite at 3-1.
For Brown, a win within the Derby would pay tribute to his mentor, Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Fame coach who died in 2009 with out having secured the game’s most cherished prize.
“It was the one race that eluded him,” Brown mentioned. “Very late in his career it was on his mind. To win the race would be an honor and a testament to him because he taught me everything.”
After two years of pandemic restrictions, Derby organizers say: Let’s get together!
Churchill Downs recurrently hosts greater than 150,000 revelers on Derby day, however the pandemic put a damper on the get together the previous two years.
In 2020, the Belmont Stakes, usually the ultimate leg of the Triple Crown, was held in June, the Derby in September and the Preakness, often the second of the three races, got here final, with a brand new date in October. None allowed followers.
All returned to their common spots on the calendar in 2021 however allowed a diminished variety of patrons. The introduced crowd for the Derby was 51,838.
This yr, there is no such thing as a cap on attendance and no masks are required.
“We’ve always said that we would adhere to whatever the state of Kentucky was operating under, and at this time, there are no capacity restrictions in restaurants, sporting facilities, no mask requirements or requirements to show vaccination,” mentioned Tonya Abeln, a spokeswoman for Churchill Downs.
One in style change from final yr has returned and even expanded, albeit with a major hike in ticket costs: All seats embrace limitless meals and drinks, a transfer supposed to scale back strains and the trade of cash. (Fans within the infield will nonetheless be confined there and must pay $12 for a mint julep, though a paddock redesign that's anticipated to be accomplished for the a hundred and fiftieth Derby ought to carry again the standing-only ticket choice.)
Last yr, distributors wandered the aisles freely passing out drinks, and there have been no strains, even for the bogs. “Isn’t this great?” was a typical phrase heard across the grounds.
“We received an overwhelming response from our guests in attendance that they preferred the ease and convenience of the all-inclusive experience, so we made the decision to expand that to our full-capacity event this year,” Abeln mentioned.
Crown Pride is the most recent Japanese racing success story, and different story strains.
With lightning-fast exercises and an uncommon warm-up routine that makes him look extra like a dressage competitor than a racehorse, Crown Pride has turned heads within the mornings since he arrived from Dubai off a runaway win within the U.A.E. Derby.
In the previous yr, Japanese horses have had a number of sturdy showings on the worldwide stage and within the United States, and in November, they notched their first Breeders’ Cup victories when Loves Only You gained the Filly & Mare Turf and Marche Lorraine gained the Distaff.
Crown Pride is probably Japan’s finest hope but for a Derby victory. Three different Japanese horses have run within the race since 1995, ending sixth, ninth and 14th.
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Names are in style. Happy Jack is called after a music by The Who. Messier, who's making an attempt to turn out to be the third Canadian-bred horse to win the Derby, was named after the hockey nice Mark Messier. Cyberknife is called after the therapy that despatched his proprietor Al Gold’s most cancers into remission. Gold has been inviting most cancers sufferers to the barns to satisfy his horse.
Personal achievements are at all times particular, too. Smith, aboard Taiba, will attempt to turn out to be the oldest jockey to win the Derby at 56. Beside Yakteen, 5 different trainers can be saddling their first Derby horses: Bhupat Seemar (Summer Is Tomorrow), Koichi Shintani (Crown Pride), John Ortiz (Barber Road), Brian Lynch (Classic Causeway) and Eric Reed (Rich Strike).
Reed didn’t know that till Friday morning, when D. Wayne Lukas, 86, scratched what would have been his fiftieth Derby horse, Ethereal Road. “They’re giving me CPR right now,” Reed joked with reporters.