by Billy Reed
WAVE 3 News Contributor
A little before 5:30 a.m. on a black and rainy morning, I drove through Gate 5 at Churchill Downs to begin my 48th consecutive year of covering the Kentucky Derby backstretch the week before the race. In the interests of full disclosure, I must confess that I have missed two runnings of the Derby since my first one in 1966. But even in those two years, I spent the week on the backstretch before having to leave just before Derby Day to take care of some business.
Much as I hate to admit it, I had to miss the 1973 Derby – yes, the Secretariat Derby – because I had to go to Omaha, NE, to pick up a national journalism award on behalf of myself and Jim Bolus, my dear friend and longtime colleague. That's where I met Carl Bernstein of Watergate fame. He and Bob Woodward were in the process of bringing down the Nixon White House, but all I cared about was calling back to Louisville to get Derby updates from Bolus.
My other missed Derby came in 1994 when I happily went to Durham, NC to see my older daughter Amy graduate from Duke University. As I told her then, "If these Duke people are so smart, how could they schedule graduation on Derby Day?" So I watched on TV as Go for Gin splashed through the slop at Churchill Downs to beat a field that included Holy Bull, who had been my selection despite a less-than-inspiring workout six days before the race.
Of course, trainer Jimmy Croll never said that Holy Bull's work was less than inspiring. He said what trainers always say: "It was just what we wanted." Only later do we find out that Croll was unhappy with what he saw that morning.
On Sunday, trainer Todd Pletcher broke with trainer dogma by flatly saying he didn't like the work by Derby contender We Miss Artie. He was so direct that it sounded like a plea to owner Ken Ramsey to pass the Derby. But Ramsey, informed of Pletcher's comments, would have none of it.
Before Pletcher's shocking burst of frankness, I can remember only one other time when a trainer admitted he hated a workout. That happened in 1967 when I was the only reporter – things were smaller and simpler back then – to cover the last Derby workout by Darby Dan Farm's Proud Clarion. It was cold and wet that day, almost as miserable as Sunday, and trainer Lloyd "Boo" Gentry was steaming when he got back to the barn, which I duly informed the next day's Courier-Journal readers.
So, of course, Proud Clarion won the Derby, paying $62.20 for a $2 win bet. I remember that price because I bet the colt for some strange reason, despite being the only witness to Gentry's tantrum.
Today, as usual, I made straight for the backstretch media center to get my first cup of coffee and the latest Derby gossip. A squat, one-story building, the center was named in honor of my pal Bolus shortly after he died of a heart attack in 1997. Jim's death came only 10 days or so after Silver Charm had won the roses to give trainer Bob Baffert the first of his three Derby victories.For years I roamed the backside with Jim and Mike Barry, who became a Louisville legend during his many years of running the Kentucky Irish-American, and, after he had to fold it, writing a sharp and witting column for The Louisville Times. I'll always remember the sunning morning in the late 1960s when Bolus and I were approached by the track president, a tall, sunny, white-haired gentleman named Wathen Knebelcamp.Right before he got to us, Bolus whispered to me, "Billy, I've always been afraid I'd get tongue-tied and call him Nathan Wobblecamp." And that's all it took. I immediately stuck out my hand and said, "Good morning, Mr. Wobblecamp."
This week I'm doing TV for WAVE 3 News, radio for ESPN680, and blogs for the website you're currently visiting. At about 6:30, the rain turned from steady to deluge status and lightning bolts crackled nearby on a far too regular basis for comfort's sake. This turned the area around the media center into a semi-disaster area. With the usual potential interview candidates nowhere to be seen, my buddy Drew Deener and I had to interview each other until I saw a familiar shock of white hair. Bob Baffert was looking for a cup of coffee.
Always a friend to the media, Baffert passed the coffee to come chat with us. I first inquired about his health because, a couple of years ago, he suffered a heart attack in Dubai. It was scary, according to eyewitnesses, but Baffert was more fortunate than my friend Bolus. He was able to hang on until his wife Jill could get him to a hospital, where he literally received royal treatment due to his status as an exalted visitor.
"I was scared the first year (after the attack)," Baffert told Deener and me on Sunday. "I'd get on the exercise bike and be afraid I'd overdo it. I had three stents put in. I also take it easier now. I don't go to all the parties and dinners like I did when I first got here. I'd encourage all the first-timers to do all that stuff because you don't know if you'll get another chance. But I've been coming here so long that now it's just a quiet dinner and back to the room."
I met Baffert in 1996 when I covered the Santa Anita Derby, won by Cavonnier, who became his first Derby horse. I was immediately taken with Baffert's mane of prematurely white hair, his trademark dark glasses (for an eye condition, not an affectation) and his irreverent sense of California cool. He wore white shirts and jeans to work., and he often didn't show up at the barn until past daylight. By then, D.Wayne Lukas, among others, had been working for hours.
When Cavonnier lost the 1996 Derby in a photo finish with Grindstone, I wondered if we would ever see Baffert again at Churchill Downs. How silly that I didn't know a great trainer when I saw one. He not only came back in 1997 with Silver Charm, he won the roses. And he made it two in a row in 1998 with Real Quiet, who seemed to have the Triple Crown won until Victory Gallop caught him in the final strides of the Belmont Stakes.
Almost one of the last 16 years, Baffert has been the straw that stirred the mint julep during Derby week. In 2001, he had so much confidence in Point Given that, he said on Sunday, he virtually took the Derby for granted. That mistake only made him feel worse when Point Given won the other two jewels of the Triple Crown, the Preakness and Belmont.
He won the Derby and Preakness again in 2002 with War Emblem, a colt that was purchased for him to train right after he won the Illinois Derby two weeks before the Kentucky Derby. Since War Emblem, Baffert has finished second twice – with Pioneer of The Nile in 2009 and Bodemeister in 2012. The latter looked to be a sure winner until I'll Have Another collared him at the end.
Even with the heart attack, the years have been good to Baffert. His tanned face is relatively unlined and he's stayed in decent shape per his doctor's orders. During our interview on Sunday, he sounded cautiously optimistic about Hoppertunity, the colt that finished a distant second to likely Derby favorite California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby.
On Sunday, despite the horrendous weather, Baffert managed to give Hoppertunity his scheduled work. Under jockey Martin Garcia, Hoppertunity started two lengths behind stakes-winning stablemate Drill. He was timed in :24.20 for a quarter mile, 1:13.40 for six furlongs, and 1:27.40 for seven. He and Drill finished virtually neck and neck.
"I sent him out because I was worried about these storms coming in," Baffert said. "He worked really well with Drill. I'm glad I got the work in. Got it in and out of the way. I can relax now."
The lesser of Baffert's two contenders is Chitlu, which won the Sunland Derby in his most recent start. It must be remembered that in 1998, Real Quiet was considered to be Baffert's "other horse," behind the brilliant Indian Charlie. Can lightning strike again? Oops. Bad analogy, considering the weather at Churchill on the Monday before the 140th Kentucky Derby.
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