BALTIMORE – For as much success as he’s had in the Kentucky Derby, trainer Bob Baffert has made an even bigger mark on the Preakness Stakes.
Baffert has won the Preakness seven times, with all five of his Derby winners – Real Quiet, Silver Charm, War Emblem, American Pharoah, and Justify – and two more who were good enough to win the Derby – Point Given and Lookin At Lucky – and redeemed themselves here at Pimlico after disappointing losses two weeks prior at Churchill Downs.
Baffert’s seven Preakness wins are a modern-day record, and tie him for the all-time lead among trainers with R.W. Walden, who won the Preakness seven times between 1875 and 1888, including five straight from 1878-1882.
If Baffert were to win the 144th Preakness on Saturday with Improbable, the morning-line favorite of the 13 entered on Wednesday, he would become the winningest trainer in Preakness history, and extend his record of Triple Crown race victories to 16.
What’s his secret here?
“The secret is to always bring the best horse,” Baffert said.
It’s a flip line, but it’s also true. All seven of Baffert’s Preakness winners went on to be named that year’s champion 3-year-old male.
The Derby is the race Baffert wants to win more than any. The Preakness is the race he enjoys more than any.
“Everybody likes coming to the Preakness,” he said. “It’s relaxing. It’s fun. It’s exciting. It’s not intense like the Derby.”
Baffert’s first Preakness starter was also his first Derby starter. Cavonnier in the 1996 Derby dropped a brutal nose decision to Grindstone, who never ran again owing to a knee injury. Cavonnier inherited the role as favorite for the Preakness, but could only manage to finish fourth.
Cavonnier never was catching runaway winner Louis Quatorze that day, but his race was compromised. As Cavonnier neared the far turn, ABC’s microphones picked up jockey Chris McCarron yelling, “It’s a [bleep]ing football,” as he swerved to avoid the projectile that had cleared the fence from the infield festivities.
Since then, Baffert has spiked the ball like Gronk. He has won the Preakness with seven of his subsequent 18 runners, and twice in those races he had two entries, so he’s won the race seven of the last 16 times he’s been in it.
Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998, and War Emblem in 2002 won the Preakness after capturing the Derby, then were denied Triple Crown sweeps in the Belmont. Point Given won both the Preakness and Belmont in 2001 after losing the Derby, and both American Pharoah in 2015 and Justify in 2018 won the Preakness en route to Triple Crown sweeps.
But Baffert says it is Lookin At Lucky’s victory in 2010 that remains one of his favorites. Baffert thought he had the best horse going into that year’s Derby, but immediately after that year’s Derby draw, when Lookin At Lucky landed the rail, Baffert said, “I want to throw up,” and then his fears were realized on Derby Day.
“He got wiped out in the Derby,” Baffert said. “We knew he was a good horse, and that Preakness showed what a good horse he was.”
American Pharoah’s victory, earned during a driving rainstorm with lightning strikes in the area, gave Baffert the hope that after the misses of Silver Charm, Real Quiet, and War Emblem, a Triple Crown was possible.
“When he crossed the finish, I thought, ‘Oh boy, I’ve got another shot at a Triple Crown,’” Baffert said.
Just before that race, Baffert’s youngest son, Bode, looked at the downpour and wondered aloud what they’d do if they won.
“It’s funny, I had been thinking the exact same thing,” Baffert said. “The rain was coming down. I was like, ‘Man, we’re gonna have to bite that bullet.’ The way he won, I couldn’t wait to run out there. I didn’t care if I got soaked. I was gonna get another shot.”
Improbable will try to emulate Point Given and Lookin At Lucky. Unlike Point Given, who likely lost his punch by trying to stay too close to a hot pace, or Lookin At Lucky, who had severe traffic trouble in the early going, Improbable didn’t seem to have a major excuse in the Derby, in which he was the lukewarm favorite. He ran well, finishing fifth, then was placed fourth following the disqualification of Maximum Security.
“He just didn’t have that kick,” said Baffert, who said he’d “like to see him a little closer” the first part of the race.
A shorter distance should help, as well as likely not having to race on an off track. And it won’t hurt that Improbable is in the hands of the trainer most successful at bringing horses back in the Preakness in the two short weeks following the Derby; all seven of Baffert’s Preakness winners exited the Derby.
Especially this year, when he’s not trying to keep a Triple Crown hope alive, Baffert doesn’t have to be here. He wants to be here.
This story originally appeared on DRF.com.