Baffert wins third Derby in six years
By Ed McNamara
Special to ESPN.com
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- Prince Ahmed bin Salman bought the horse, and Bob Baffert and Victor Espinoza stole the Derby for him. Wire to wire, and unless you had the 20-1 winner, not very exciting. It was Baffert first, the rest nowhere.
He is the first Derby winner to lead throughout since Winning Colors in 1988.
A crowd of 145,033 saw a Derby oddity if not a thriller. War Emblem, 23-1 runner-up Proud Citizen, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, and Perfect Drift entered the clubhouse turn 1-2-3 and stayed that way until the finish except for a few strides in upper stretch when Perfect Drift briefly overtook Proud Citizen. War Emblem and Proud Citizen were the first horses that NBC announcer Tom Durkin called, and he really never had to mention anyone else. The anticipated strong pace never materialized, and never did any meaningful competition.
The first three came out of the Illinois Derby at Sportsman's Park, the Lexington at Keeneland and the Spiral Stakes at Turfway Park. The Wood Memorial, the Blue Grass and the Santa Anita Derby? Meaningless events this time.
Espinoza set leisurely fractions and no one came to get him as War Emblem ran a half-mile in 47.04 seconds, 6 furlongs in 1:11.75 and a mile in 1:36.70. He kicked clear in midstretch and drew off to win by four lengths over Proud Citizen and jockey Mike Smith. Perfect Drift, ridden by Eddie Delahoussaye and trained by transplanted Australian Murray Johnson, was three-quarters of a length farther back. Bobby Frankel's Medaglia d'Oro was a so-what fourth, eight lengths behind the winner, after never being in the hunt.
"At the three-eighths pole, I had too much horse left to go then," Espinoza said. "It's a long stretch, and I had to be patient."
War Emblem paid $43 to win after running 1 1/4 miles in 2:01.13 on a warm, pleasant afternoon. He earned $875,000 from a total purse of $1,175,000 for his fifth win in eight starts. He topped a $1,300.80 exacta, an $18,373.20 trifecta and a $1 superfecta worth a life-changing $91,764.50.
Baffert won his third Derby in six years with a colt that the Saudi Arabian prince purchased from Russell Reineman after War Emblem won the Illinois Derby last month for trainer Frank Springer. The reported price was seven figures, and the Prince got that back when War Emblem earned a $1-million bonus for pulling off the Illinois-Kentucky Derby double. The rich always find a way to get richer.
"Winning the Kentucky Derby has always been my dream," Salman said. "I would like to thank Bob Baffert. He is a genius."
Baffert and Salman sprang the upset after being knocked off last year with heavily favored Point Given, who ran fifth in the Derby before taking the Preakness, Belmont and Travers on his way to the Horse of the Year title.
"We sort of came in here through the back door but we are leaving through the front door," Baffert said. "We're just glad we were able to purchase this horse and it is a great win for all of us. I told the prince I owe you a Derby after last year. He got his Derby."
Baffert's strategy was a key reason. He told Espinoza, who was riding the son of Our Emblem for the first time, to let the speed horse relax.
"I said, 'Victor, this is a really, really good horse. You're a longshot but don't panic. He's a natural runner, just let him do his thing. If they leave you by yourself, just don't move on them and when you turn for home, if you're in front, don't panic. Just wait, wait, wait until the eighth pole, and then you can go ahead and do whatever you want.' "
He did, and nobody ever came to get him. The also-rans behind him might as well have pulled up on the backstretch for all the impact they made. Harlan's Holiday, at 6-1 the highest-priced favorite in Derby history, ran seventh, and California's star, Came Home, was sixth. Deep closers Essence of Dubai and Saarland never got rolling and ran ninth and 10th, respectively. Johannesburg, the Irish shipper and the 2-year-old champion, was 8th. All of the name horses were nobodies, and forget the rest of them.
Delahoussaye couldn't believe how the race shook out.
"They were walking," the two-time Derby winner said. "I thought there would be five or six horses in front of me, but nobody was going with the leader. I thought they'd go the half in 46, not 47. I was up front, but I didn't want to be. I was just being dragged along with the race.
"Go watch the tapes and you'll see that I was strangling the horse, like we were going a mile and a half. But there was no pace. I just don't know where those other horses were. I thought there'd be some push up front, but no. That's horse racing."