Bodemeister huge in defeat

Updated: May 14, 2012, 12:32 AM ET
By Claire Novak | Special to

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- When Bodemeister flew around Churchill Downs with the winged feet of a superhorse, shouts of disbelief ran through the record crowd. Here were 165,307 people crammed under the Twin Spires, and anyone who knew anything about horse racing knew they were witnessing something special. But the quick early fractions were suicidal in a race so long; the lead was impossible to maintain. The way the Arkansas Derby winner was rolling along could never last, not unless he was really a monstrous runner.

Still, there was Bodemeister, hurling down off the final turn, his margin holding to deep stretch, his gangly legs churning as he widened to three lengths ahead under jockey Mike Smith's strong-armed urging. There was Ahmed Zayat thinking finally, after running second twice before, a horse he owned was going to win. There was little Bode Baffert, 8, cheering for his namesake, and Hall of Fame trainer Bob, his dad, who already had won the Derby three times but really wanted this horse to take it, on this day, for the kid and for so many reasons more.

We have a brilliant horse, there's no doubt about it; he'll come back. We want him healthy and to see how good of a horse he is. I'm very proud of my trainer, very proud of my horse. Next time.

-- Owner Ahmed Zayat
Ah, the bitter joy of the runner-up position; a length and a half back and you can't be ungrateful, but what a tantalizing taste of victory. I'll Have Another stole the show from the colt that went off as the 4-to-1 favorite, closing with the grinding determination of one destined to shatter dreams.

So here was Zayat in the paddock while I'll Have Another's connections were in the winner's circle, and here was Baffert facing the cameras without a golden trophy, and here was Mike Smith, saying, "Hey, don't take me off him."

"It's my third second, my third second in four years," Zayat said. "I don't know what to say."

"When we get it, it will be that much sweeter someday," remarked Zayat's son, Justin.

"He was doing it easily, he was within himself," Baffert told reporters. "He was being pressed but he's a brilliant horse, and that's the way he wanted to run. He ran his race and he was there; I was really proud of him. We got beat, but he showed up, and that's all that a trainer can ask for -- that his horse shows up on the big days."

No hard feelings for the rider regarding something the horse did naturally, brilliantly. Early splits, flying, 22.32 seconds for the quarter and 45.39 for the half.

"I told Mike, 'If he breaks great and feels like running, we can win it,'" Baffert said.

"I was two in front of the field the first three jumps, I mean like now," Smith remarked. "I just went with what he knows and it was brilliant, just a bit quick early on. He was running hard at the end. The other horse finished, but he never quit on me, never quit on me."

And there was no disappointment from Smith, who at the eighth pole thought he had it in similar fashion to his Arkansas Derby win; not quite the 9.5-length margin, but what would have been an impressive romp nonetheless.

"You know, normally you'd think it was extremely disappointing, but I'm so proud of him," the jockey said. "I mean, he ran tremendous, man. He's only run five times. That kind of effort is incredible."

"We have a brilliant horse, there's no doubt about it; he'll come back," Zayat said. "We want him healthy and to see how good of a horse he is. I'm very proud of my trainer, very proud of my horse. Next time."

There were few tears to be shed over such a solid effort, but for Baffert one thought brought a choked-up end to a bittersweet interview.

"You know what, I was watching my little son Bode," he said of the Derby's final, tantalizing strides.

Then his voice broke.

"I felt bad for him," he said.

Claire Novak is an Eclipse Award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.