Training two favorites for Kentucky Derby is unique for Bob Baffert

Training two favorites for Kentucky Derby is unique for Bob Baffert
Trainer Bob Baffert watches horses work out at Churchill Downs. Baffert has trained two of the Kentucky Derby favorites, Dortmund and American Pharoah. (Charlie Riedel / Associated Press)

Bob Baffert stood along the backstretch at Churchill Downs this week as American Pharoah and Dortmund prepared to gallop in front of an adoring morning-workout crowd.

Ahmed Zayat, owner of American Pharoah, took up a position to Baffert's immediate left. Kaleem Shah, owner of Dortmund, stood to Baffert's right.


The three men chatted quietly and laughed easily while observing the colts. The owners' body language indicated no tension.

That could change Saturday when the Kentucky Derby is run for the 141st time.

It is not unusual for top trainers to have more than one entry in America's most famous horse race. But Baffert's situation this year guiding the first and second Derby choices — and their owners — is rare.

American Pharoah is the Derby favorite with 5-2 odds. Dortmund is at 3-1.

Baffert has navigated similar situations — in 1998 with Indian Charlie and Real Quiet, and in 2001 with Point Given and Congaree — but never with two horses regarded as such a formidable 1-2 punch.

Zayat and Shah, the trainer said, knew what they were signing on for when they hired him.

"They know there's going to be other good horses," in the barn, said Baffert, a three-time Derby winner.

Zayat, whose horses have finished second in the Derby three times, and Shah, in the race for the first time, sounded confident that Baffert would provide each colt with the necessary attention leading up to and on Derby day.

"He does right by his owners," Zayat said, "So I don't see any conflict."

Neither does Shah.

"Bob, I know, will do well by both horses," Shah said.

Jockey Victor Espinoza, who will ride American Pharoah, said "it must be tough" for Baffert to manage the two top colts and their owners.

"It's a good spot — and the other direction it's kind of a little bad spot," Espinoza said. "I don't think it's easy for him."

Baffert, of course, can't lose if either American Pharoah or Dortmund becomes the third California-trained horse to win the Derby in the last four years.

Saturday's $2.2-million Derby will mark the first time American Pharoah and Dortmund will be in the same race.

American Pharoah has won four consecutive races since finishing fifth in his first start. In his last race, he won the $1-million Arkansas Derby by eight lengths.

Dortmund is undefeated in six races, including the $1-million Santa Anita Derby.

On Wednesday, after American Pharoah drew the No. 18 starting position and Dortmund drew the No. 8 spot, Baffert and both owners were happy to have avoided an inside position in the 20-horse field. On Thursday, Stanford was scratched and Frammento, with jockey Corey Nakatani, was inserted into the 20th position.

All entries in positions 12 through 20 moved one spot closer to the rail, putting American Pharoah at No. 17, from which no horse has won the Derby.

Baffert knows the history and had joked on Wednesday that he preferred to avoid the spot. "I don't want the 17," he said.

Baffert also purposely avoided putting American Pharoah and Dortmund in the same race as they developed into Derby contenders. Better to meet in a championship setting.

"It's like a heavyweight bout," he said. "I've got George Foreman and Muhammad Ali."

No trainer has had horses finish 1-2 in the Derby since Ben Jones in 1948 with Citation and Coaltown.

On Thursday, Baffert and Zayat watched morning workouts from one side of a track opening while Shah stood across the way with friends and well-wishers.

Afterward, they congregated at Baffert's Barn 33, which is emblazoned with a "Home of Kentucky Derby Winners" sign that lists Silver Charm, Real Quiet and War Emblem and each horse's owners.

Zayat and Shah would like to add their names to that list.

"It's good to be cordial and to be friendly," Zayat said this week. "There's no personal jealousy. It's not personal — it's you're competitive.

"So do I want to beat him? Absolutely."

Shah smoothly deflects questions about which Baffert-trained horse will win on Saturday.

"I'm biased, understandably so, but it's not just a two-horse race," he said.

Baffert hopes it will be, with American Pharoah and Dortmund, or Dortmund and American Pharoah, running 1-2 as they turn for home on Saturday.

"That's what I want to see," he said, "and let's see what they're made of."

Twitter: @latimesklein