Kentucky Derby has a different feel, but Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas are constants

Trainer Bob Baffert talks with jockey Florent Geroux at Churchill Downs on Thursday.
(Darron Cummings / Associated Press)

Hall of Fame trainers Bob Baffert and Wayne Lukas have saddled 81 horses between them in the Kentucky Derby. Baffert has won the race five times, Lukas four. They’ve known each other for almost four decades, starting when they were quarter-horse trainers.

So, it was no surprise that as soon as Baffert had watched his two entrants in this year’s race — Authentic and Thousand Words — plod over the wet Churchill Downs track on Wednesday that he sought out Lukas at his nearby barn.

The pair, with Baffert’s face-covering bandana resting around his neck and Lukas constantly pulling the omnipresent light-blue mask over his nose, played a game of who was the better trainer, each claiming the other was the best. Lukas, 85, stayed seated, having just recovered from COVID-19, something he cautions people from taking lightly.

Lukas won’t be running a horse in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby, instead he is playing assistant trainer for Todd Pletcher’s Money Moves. Pletcher chose to stay the week in New York, where he has his main stable.

It doesn’t take long on the backstretch for talk to turn to the big “what if” and “will it be the same” that has been part of the chatter, especially with the place being essentially empty.

Famed horse racing trainer Bob Baffert will not face a complaint related to Triple Crown winner Justify’s failed drug test from the Santa Anita Derby.


“If they had run the damn thing in the spring you would have gotten your sixth [win],” Lukas said. “That I’m sure of.”

Baffert, 67, didn’t disagree.

“I was looking good, but we’re still here.”

The cast of horses would be very different in May than it is now in September. Baffert would have had Nadal and Charlatan, both of whom were injured in the weeks after the Arkansas Derby, which was run on the first Saturday in May.

And, as it turns out, Saturday’s Derby will have the same acoustics and fan energy as it would have if it had been held on May 2, which means none.

“It’s sort of weird,” Baffert said. “What we’ve been going through in California, is you just sit there — we can’t even take a win picture — then they run and we just sit there.

Trainer Wayne Lukas has won the Kentucky Derby four times.
(Julie Jacobson / Associated Press)

“It’s one of those things that makes the Derby a great event is when 150,000 people show up. Now, it’s like you’re running on a Wednesday afternoon at Belmont. It’s not the same when you don’t have people watching and cheering you on. That’s what makes the Derby so great. … I think it will be better on television than being here.”

Baffert is not alone in there being an attitudinal change about this year’s Kentucky Derby.

“It feels like it’s more about winning the money ($3-million purse) rather than the pageantry of the Derby,” said Dale Romans, who will saddle Attachment Rate. “It may sound shallow but that’s the way it is.

“I’ve never thought about winning purse money in the Derby before. It’s about winning the Kentucky Derby. This one feels a little different. It feels like a big race, not the big race.”

Besides the date, there are a few other things out of the normal for this Derby.

This will be the first time since 2003 that 20 horses haven’t been entered in the race, exclusive of scratches. This year there are 17 with Thursday’s scratch of King Guillermo because of a fever.

It’s the first year for the new 20-stall starting gate, which eliminates the gap between the 14 and 15 and allows the horse on the rail to start from where was normally the three.

And, all the top jockeys are not running in it. Because of quarantine restrictions either in Kentucky or home territories, jockeys such as Flavien Prat, last year’s winner, Joel Rosario and Irad Ortiz, Jr., have elected to stay and ride at Del Mar and Saratoga. Mike Smith is the only Southern California jockey in the race, aboard second-favorite Honor A.P.

The feeling of things being different is also evident for first-time Derby trainer Greg Foley, who has Major Fed.

“It doesn’t feel like the Derby, especially when it’s moved from May to September, and [there are] no people,” Foley said. “… You get that buzz in the spring ... [now.] It’s quiet. They’ve got it locked down pretty hard. It’s definitely different, and that takes something away from it.”

Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen tries to put a positive spin on all of this. He will send Max Player, his 21st Kentucky Derby entrant. Asmussen is still looking for his first win.

“We’re undefeated in September in the Derby, and we hope we can keep it that way,” he said.

Cherwa reported from Orlando, Fla.