Kentucky Derby: Trainer Bob Baffert has two favorites on his hands

Columnist Bill Dwyre walks the stables with trainer Bob Baffert as Triple Crown season nears

Bob Baffert finds himself in a situation these days that could give a guy white hair.

Oops. Never mind.

The famous thoroughbred horse trainer not only has the favorite for this year's Kentucky Derby, he has the top two favorites. It is a rare abundance of riches for any trainer. It can also cause an abundance of stress.

It is one month to the May 2 Derby, the first leg of the sport's much coveted, and recently much elusive, Triple Crown. There have been 11 Triple Crown winners, none since Affirmed in 1978.

It is also 11 days to the Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park and two days to the Santa Anita Derby. If Baffert had any more balls to juggle, he'd need another arm.

His thoroughly talented thoroughbreds are American Pharoah and Dortmund. The most recent Churchill Downs Derby future book had American Pharoah at 9-2 and Dortmund at 5-1. A future book exacta on the two set a mere $50 payout for a $2 bet.

Pharoah, or AP as the fans have started calling him, has lost once in four races — "His first one, a fluke," Baffert says — and was the 2014 Eclipse Award winner as the champion 2-year-old. He will race in the $1-million Arkansas Derby.

Dortmund has yet to lose; actually, he has yet to be anything but impressive in his five races. He will lead the field in Saturday's $1-million Santa Anita Derby.

"This is why you get into the business, Triple Crown time," Baffert says. "It's our March Madness."

American Pharoah is owned by successful horseman Ahmed Zayat. He is 52, from Egypt, and made his money in soft-drink distribution and glass manufacturing.

Zayat has finished second in the Kentucky Derby three times, with Pioneer of the Nile in 2009, Nehro in 2011 and Bodemeister in 2012. In 2010, he had the favorite in Eskendereya, who ended up being scratched a week prior to the big race with an injury. Pioneer of the Nile is AP's sire.

"He's had plenty of racing bad luck," Baffert says, "but he loves the sport and keeps trying."

Dortmund is also owned by a successful horseman, Kaleem Shah. He is also 52, is from India, and has been a player in several big-money stakes races. His Bayern won last year's $5-million Breeders' Cup Classic.

He made his money in a communications tech company that works with the government and does the kind of work that Shah once said, in an interview with the Racing Form's Jay Hovdey, "I cannot talk much about."

Shah's father was among the more prominent horse trainers in India's history and did as much as he could to make his son get a good education and stay away from the ponies. That worked until Shah got to the U.S.

He is a huge soccer fan — thus his horses named after German rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Dortmund, the horse, was sired by 2008 Kentucky Derby winner Big Brown.

So Baffert juggles all this, laughing all the way to the bank. He plays no favorites, just smiles a lot at the mention of either horse.

"My owners, they understand," he says. "They know I'll take care of them at the end of the day."

He says he puts all the daily information "into the drone" and then "I send the drone out." The drone is his main assistant, Jimmy Barnes, the operational lifeblood of Baffert's stable.

"My clients know the drill," Baffert says. "I have owners tell me that they'd love to have horses with me, but they know they'd want to get too involved, so they don't even bother."

Baffert says American Pharoah and Dortmund are certain entries in the Kentucky Derby. He also says he is very careful not to look too far ahead. In racing, you cannot, because these 1,000-pound animals are as fragile as they are talented.

"You expect the worst," Baffert says, "and hope for the best."

He says that Zayat and Shah, veterans that they are, now live on the same sort of pins and needles that he does.

"I know now that, when I call them, especially around workout time in the morning, and they see my phone number come up on their phones," he says, "they kind of panic. So the first words I say are: 'This is a good call.'"

Neither of these horses has shown any indication of fragility, nor unwillingness to run their hearts out.

American Pharoah won the March 14 Rebel on a track that had endured three days of rain and was basically muddy slop. Coming out of the gate, he kicked loose his right front shoe and ran the rest of the way with the loose shoe flapping. He won by 61/4 lengths.

"He could have torn stuff apart with the loose nails," Baffert said, in amazement and gratitude.

The unbeaten Dortmund got a hefty challenge in the early season Bob Lewis Stakes from Firing Line and veteran jockey Gary Stevens, who put his horse in front in the last furlong and was amazed to see Dortmund dig deeper to come back and win on the rail.

Earlier this week, American Pharoah was walking the shedrow outside Baffert's barns at Santa Anita, and Dortmund was in his stall about 20 yards away.

Since they've never been in the same race, Baffert was asked if they got along with each other.

"They don't even know each other," he says. "But they will."

Twitter: @dwyrelatimes

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