It's obvious you need a great horse if you want to win the Kentucky Derby. But you also need a lot of luck. The Derby is such a crowded circus and such a major event supercharged with emotion that the best horse doesn't always win.
Few understand that better than trainers Bob Baffert and Todd Pletcher. That might be the reason each thinks - or at least wants us to believe - the other guy's horse should be considered the favorite May 1 in the 136th running of the Kentucky Derby.
Pletcher says Baffert's horse, Lookin At Lucky, is well ahead of the field. Baffert says Pletcher has the best shot with Eskendereya.
"Everybody wants to throw the challenge on the other guy, you know," Baffert said. "But I wouldn't trade places with him. I feel good about my horse."
We should have a better idea after today whether one of them is bluffing.
Both horses are set to run their final prep race before the Derby, with Lookin At Lucky set to go in the Santa Anita Derby in Arcadia, Calif., and Eskendereya running in the Wood Memorial in New York. Both horses staked a claim as the horse to beat with a big victory earlier this year.
Lookin At Lucky won the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and although the margin of victory wasn't big - just a neck - Baffert was impressed, considering that his horse clipped hooves with another horse at the half-mile marker.
"We know he's a good horse," said Baffert, comparing him to Silver Charm, the 1997 Derby and Preakness winner. "It could have been disastrous because he nicked himself up pretty good in the race. But, you know, he showed a little determination. Usually horses when they do that, it scares them. Usually the lactic acid kicks in and they're done. But he didn't. He handled it well, and he showed a lot of grit.
"It was really one of his better races."
Eskendereya, in contrast, dominated the Fountain of Youth, winning by 8 1/2 lengths.
"To me, you would have to rank Lookin At Lucky No. 1," Pletcher said. "I mean as a champion 2-year-old, he came back with a big effort first time on the dirt. He got in some trouble and was able to overcome it. So I think until someone dethrones him, he's No. 1. But you know, that being said, I think the most impressive performance this year was Eskendereya at the Fountain of Youth."
Of course, Baffert and Pletcher know neither horse is guaranteed anything in the Kentucky Derby, even if they do run well today. If last year taught us anything, it's that nothing is certain on race day at Churchill Downs.
In the 135th Derby, with the horses coming down the backstretch, Baffert looked like he was about to win the fourth Derby of his Hall of Fame career. I Want Revenge, the morning-line favorite during the week, had been scratched the morning of the race. The Baffert-trained Pioneerof the Nile looked like he was the best remaining horse in the field for most of the race. Then, out of nowhere, weaving through traffic and hugging the rail, came Mine That Bird, a 50-to-1 long shot who had never won a major race. Had jockey Calvin Borel been cut off, bumped in traffic or forced to the outside, Baffert's horse almost certainly would have won.
Instead, all Baffert could do was shrug his shoulders and congratulate the winners.
Pletcher knows that painful feeling well. Despite the fact that he has experienced tremendous success as a trainer, including four consecutive Eclipse Trainer of the Year honors from 2004 to 2007, he is 0-for-24 in America's biggest race.
"Well, you can take a lot of shots, but you have to have the right horse," Baffert said. "And so ... maybe he just hasn't had the right horse. So it's all [about] having the right horse. This year, he has the right horse. Eskendereya, that's the kind of horse you need."
Pletcher has had such a strong start to the season that if Eskendereya falters or is caught by surprise, Pletcher could still come away with his first Derby victory. His stable of 3-year-olds is so deep this year, he has six other horses besides Eskendereya who could get into the 20-horse Derby field: Rule, Mission Impazible, Discreetly Mine, Interactif, Aikenite and Connemara. But there are a few caveats with that strategy. Pletcher sent five horses to the starting gate in 2007, tying a record held by D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, and they finished sixth, eighth, ninth, 18th and 20th.
"We're five weeks away," Pletcher said. "That's still a long ways.
"We're just focused on keeping these horses happy and healthy and not getting too caught up in whether it's one, two, five or whatever the number turns out to be."
Baffert also has a decent shot with his backup horse, Conveyance, who was undefeated until the Sunland Derby, where he finished second to Endorsement. It's also possible both Baffert and Pletcher could be upset by a horse such as Awesome Act, who is trained by England's Jeremy Noseda.