Baf­fert is loaded with Derby colts and has look of a Win­ner

The News-Times - - SPORTS -

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baf­fert is feel­ing the pres­sure now. The five-time Ken­tucky Derby win­ner finds him­self with new fa­vorite Game Win­ner since Omaha Beach was scratched with a breath­ing prob­lem.

“Oh, boy, here we go,” the white-haired trainer said Thurs­day to a throng out­side his Churchill Downs barn. “I think ev­ery­body is try­ing to jinx me. It’s still a very wide-open race.”

The Derby pos­si­bly could lose an­other horse, too.

Haikal, a 30-1 shot trained by Kiaran McLaugh­lin, is be­ing treated for an ab­scess in his left front foot. The Gotham Stakes win­ner didn’t train Thurs­day and soaked in Ep­som salts to re­duce the ac­cu­mu­la­tion of pus in his in­fected foot.

If Haikal can’t train again Fri­day, McLaugh­lin said he would be out of the race. The dead­line to scratch is Fri­day morn­ing.

No mat­ter how much he tries to de­flect the at­ten­tion, Baf­fert holds a strong hand head­ing into Satur­day’s race. Game Win­ner is the

9-2 early fa­vorite, and his two other horses, Im­prob­a­ble and Road­ster, are the co-sec­ond choices at 5-1.

A sixth vic­tory would tie him for the most wins by a trainer in the Derby’s 145year his­tory.

“I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty fa­vorite now,” he in­sisted.

In­stead, he tried to sic the me­dia on Ja­son Servis, who trains Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity. The Florida Derby win­ner is a 10-1 shot.

“He should be the fa­vorite,” Baf­fert said. “He’s a horse that nobody is talk­ing about and that’s a horse that I’m wor­ried about. He’s run faster than we have. Put the pres­sure on Ja­son, will you?”

Over at his barn, Servis em­pathized with trainer Richard Man­della and 78-year-old owner Rick Porter, their Derby hopes dashed a day ear­lier. But he was glad to see Mike Smith knocked out of the race. The 53-year-old Hall of Famer is a crafty rider who won a year ago with Jus­tify.

“I was re­ally happy about that, es­pe­cially hav­ing him out­side of me,” said Servis, al­lud­ing to Smith’s abil­ity to have pos­si­bly prompted Max­i­mum Se­cu­rity into a quicker than de­sir­able early pace.

Baf­fert said he gave no thought to re­plac­ing Florent Ger­oux aboard Road­ster with Smith, who ini­tially chose to ride Omaha Beach over Road­ster in the Derby.

“I would never do that to the rid­ers,” he said, hav­ing started in rac­ing as a jockey.

Mean­while, Omaha Beach was set to have surgery Thurs­day to fix an en­trapped epiglot­tis that af­fects his breath­ing. The mi­nor pro­ce­dure, at a nearby clinic in Lexington, will re­quire two to three weeks of recovery, enough time to knock the colt off the Triple Crown trail. He’s ex­pected to race this sum­mer.

“As bad as it felt yes­ter­day, it would be a hor­ri­ble feel­ing to have him not fin­ish well and know that I was at fault for run­ning him,” Man­della said. “So we had to do the right thing by the horse, and that is give it up and go to the next step.”

Prom­i­nent owner and breeder Arthur Han­cock was among many who con­tacted Man­della to ex­press sym­pa­thy. Han­cock pointed out that the late train­ing great Char­lie Whit­ting­ham was 73 when he won his first and only Derby.

“So who am I to think I should be do­ing this now?” said Man­della, who is 68.

Baf­fert felt Man­della’s pain. In 2014, he had to scratch Hop­per­tu­nity be­cause of a mi­nor foot prob­lem two days be­fore the Derby.

“There’s noth­ing like com­ing to the Derby when you have a le­git­i­mate chance to win it and then all of a sud­den the rug is just pulled out from un­der you,” Baf­fert said. “It’s a tough feel­ing.”

Cer­tainly much tougher than sad­dling the top three wa­ger­ing choices in the Derby.

Al­lud­ing to his 2012 heart at­tack in Dubai, Baf­fert as­sured on­look­ers he could han­dle the pres­sure.

“I got three stents and they’re good,” he said, pat­ting his chest with both hands.

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