Rare Air

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Bob Baffert already keeps company with Ben Jones, the legendary late trainer for Calumet Farm who dominated racing for parts or all of the 1930s, ‘40s and 50s.

Like Baffert, Jones trained a pair of Triple Crown winners in Whirlaway and Citation. Those two swept the American classics in 1941 and 1948, respectively. Baffert pulled off the same feat with American Pharoah and Justify, those two colts pulling off what proved elusive for nearly four decades just three years apart, in 2015 and 2018.

Jones trained six Kentucky Derby winners – the most for any trainer in the long history of the race – and Baffert comes into Saturday’s 145th running of the Derby with a good chance to pull even with the man nicknamed “Plain Ben.” Baffert will send out three runners in the Derby – last year’s champion 2-year-old Game Winner and Grade 1 winners Roadster and Improbable – in his historic bid.

Baffert said he doesn’t think much about making history, either what he’s already done or what he might do.

“No, not really,” he said when asked about it Tuesday morning. “Right now I’m fortunate that I’m here, with three horses. It’s so hard to get here. We’ve been spoiled the last few years with the horses we brought here. For me it’s challenging. I like the challenge. It’s fun here.

“This week it’s going to be fun every day, every day more people come and want to see the horses. That’s what makes the Derby so unique. For me it’s for the clients, for the owners, for them to enjoy the moment.”

Game Winner, Roadster and Improbable afford Baffert and their connections the opportunity for a good time. After Wednesday’s scratch of morning-line favorite Omaha Beach they come into Saturday’s race as the favorite and co-second choices on the revised line.

Baffert’s trio collectively have five Grade 1 victories, with Game Winner owning three himself with last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs, FrontRunner at Santa Anita Park and Del Mar Futurity at Del Mar. Improbable also won his last year in the Los Alamitos Futurity while Roadster won the Santa Anita Derby in his last start April 6.

“They’ve always been (among) the elite 3-year-olds this year,” Baffert said. “Game Winner was the champion, he’s right there, never has run a bad race. Roadster, he was a little bit late to the party but won the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby. Doing well since. Improbable was so lucky to even get in after his gate antics (prior to his runner-up in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby last time). It could have been disastrous for him. It was like one of those Final Four games where you get lucky and win by a basket, get in and win the whole thing.

“They all have different little styles. At the end of the day they’re just top 3-year-olds and we’re here, that’s what it’s all about.”

Ben Jones knew what the Derby was all about, too. He won his six from 1938 to 1952 before an early retirement and handing over the Calumet runners to his son Jimmy. Jones’ first Derby victory came with his first starter – Lawrin in 1938 – and he finished second in the race twice and third once to complete a stellar record from just 11 starters.

Baffert is 5-3-3 in 29 starts in the race, the victories with Silver Charm (1997), Real Quiet (1998), War Emblem (2002) and his two Triple Crown winners. Cavonnier, second by a nose in Baffert’s first Derby in 1996, and Pioneerof The Nile (2009) and Bodemeister (2012) are his runner-ups.

“When I broke my maiden as a jockey it was the greatest win ever,” Baffert said, reflecting back to his first Derby appearance 23 years ago. “When I won the Champion of Champions (as a Quarter Horse trainer) I thought that was the greatest win ever. When Cavonnier won the Santa Anita Derby that was like the greatest win ever.

“In the Derby I was hoping to light the board. If I could run fourth I would have been happy. Then he took the lead and thought he might have won. I thought I won it so that was like the greatest win ever for me for about two minutes. Then when I lost the photo it was the toughest loss I’d ever had. I never thought I’d be back again. Thought I blew my only shot to win.”

Notes: Churchill Downs oddsmaker Mike Battaglia issued a revised line for Saturday’s Derby with the scratch of Omaha Beach. He pegged Game Winner at 9-2, just below Roadster and Improbable at 5-1. Maximum Security and Tacitus are next at 8-1 and the others are double-digit odds.