BALTIMORE – University of Arizona graduate Bob Baffert oozed confidence in Pioneerof the Nile leading to the Kentucky Derby.
The colt was in front coming down the stretch, and for a few moments the Hall of Fame trainer thought he had his fourth Derby victory.
“It just took the air out of us,” Baffert recalled Thursday.
As was the case with most of the 150,000 people at Churchill Downs that day. Calvin Borel and 50-1 shot Mine That Bird blew by Pioneerof the Nile to win by 6 3/4 lengths in the second-biggest upset in Derby history.
Now Baffert and his colt are back for a rematch in Saturday’s Preakness.
Not only will they have to contend with the Derby winner, but Borel also has switched horses and will ride stellar filly Rachel Alexandra, the 8-to-5 morning line favorite who brings a five-race winning streak into the 1 3-16-mile race at Pimlico.
“I would’ve taken a shot at the Derby with her. She’s just a tremendous athlete,” Baffert said. “She’s a good filly and these classics are huge. There’s not a lot of money to run for fillies. She fits with these boys, so I don’t blame them for taking a shot.”
Baffert did the same thing with Excellent Meeting in 1999, but she was pulled up as a precaution and didn’t finish the race.
He expects a better result for Rachel Alexandra, who will break from the No. 13 post on the far outside under Borel.
“He’ll have her right in contention immediately,” Baffert said. “She’ll probably be sitting second or third and just cruising.”
Pioneerof the Nile is the 5-1 second choice in the 13-horse field and drew the No. 9 post. Garrett Gomez and the colt figure to be stalking the pace from an outside position.
“The questions that weren’t answered in the Derby we’re going to find out in the Preakness,” said Baffert, back in the Triple Crown’s second race for the first time in six years.
Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas is picking the filly to win, but he gives Baffert a solid chance at winning his fifth Preakness, which would tie him with Lukas and T.J. Healey for second on the career list.
Rachel Alexandra isn’t the only unknown factor in the Preakness. The weather figures to play a part, too, with a 50 percent chance of afternoon thunderstorms.
That could turn Pimlico’s dirt into mud, the same kind of slop that bogged down most of the 20 horses in the Derby, except Mine That Bird, who went flying through it.
“I still want to see what my horse does on dirt. He’s seen sticky mud,” Baffert said. “My horse has never run on a dry track. He’s trained well on a dry track. I’m hoping it moves him up.”