Bob Baffert is feeling the pressure now. The five-time Kentucky Derby winning-trainer finds himself with new favourite Game Winner after Omaha Beach was scratched with a breathing problem.
“Oh, boy, here we go,” Baffert said.
“I think everybody is trying to jinx me. It’s still a very wide-open race.”
The Derby could possibly 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 did not work on Thursday and the hoof is being treated.
No matter how much he tries to deflect the attention, Baffert holds a strong hand heading into the race on Saturday (Sunday AEST).
Game Winner is the 9-2 early favourite, and his stablemates, Improbable and Roadster, are the co-second choices at 5-1.
A sixth victory would tie Baffert for the most wins by a trainer in the Derby’s 145-year history.
“I don’t think there’s a heavy-duty favourite now,” he said.
He tried to deflect the media’s attention to Jason Servis, who trains Maximum Security. The Florida Derby winner is a 10-1 shot.
“He should be the favourite,” 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.”
Servis empathised with Omaha Beach’s trainer Richard Mandella and 78-year-old owner Rick Porter but was glad to see jockey Mike Smith knocked out of the race. The 53-year-old 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.
Omaha Beach is scheduled to undergo surgery to fix an entrapped epiglottis which 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 is 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.
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.”