Bob Baffert was back in his element, standing outside the stakes barn, talking with friends, talking to owners, talking to reporters.
He held his first media scrum at about 7:15 a.m. Friday.
“I’m like [Gustavo] Delgado, I don’t speak English,” he said with a laugh, referring to the trainer of Kentucky Derby winner Mage, who isn’t a native English speaker and has his son do most of the interviews. “He’s smart. Talk to [my son] Bode.”
Over the course of an hour, Baffert did three mini news conferences ahead of the Preakness Stakes on Saturday at Pimlico Race Course, answering the same questions in almost the same way every time.
The heightened interest in the Hall of Fame trainer is because it’s his first appearance at a Triple Crown race in two years. When he was last seen at a Triple Crown facility, he was at his barn at Churchill Downs defending himself and his horse after Medina Spirit tested positive for a race-day medication. The ultimate outcome of that situation will be resolved in the courts.
After the positive test was discovered, Churchill Downs banned Baffert for two years. Medina Spirit did run in the Preakness, but Baffert stayed home to keep from being a distraction. After it was clear that Medina Spirit was not going to run in the Belmont Stakes, New York also banned the trainer for two years even though he had not had any drug positives in the state. The ban was later reduced to one year.
“I love Baltimore,” Baffert said to anyone who asked. “Of the three classics, it’s the most fun. The pressure of the Derby is over and you have a Derby winner. It’s a big party. People want to come here to have fun and see the Derby winner run. That’s what the Preakness is all about.
“We love it here. It’s very low key. They treat you very well, and having everyone in the [same] barn is really cool.”
This year’s Preakness appears less than stellar. Only one of the 18 horses that ran in Louisville two weeks ago is here, but it’s the one you‘d want. Mage went from 8-5 on the morning line to 4-5 when the field was reduced to seven after then-second favorite First Mission was scratched Friday.
Two of the horses — Chase the Chaos and Coffeewithchris — look greatly outclassed, leaving only four horses who bettors believe can challenge Mage for the win in the 1 3/16-mile race.
“I think when you come with the Derby winner, you have a little bit of an edge because your horse has gone a mile and a quarter,” Baffert said. “He’s pretty fit. I’ve never won it [after not running in] the Derby. It’s a different feeling. But I think Mage is the horse to beat. He’s ran a big race and he’s lightly raced. What he’s done in just a few short outs is pretty impressive. He’s [definitely] the horse to beat.”
Baffert’s only entrant in the Preakness did not run in Derby. National Treasure is currently the second favorite at 3-1. He hasn’t raced since his fourth-place finish in the Santa Anita Derby.
“I just want to give this horse a chance,” Baffert said. “I’ve had some other horses that I would like to have in here. But I couldn’t get them ready in time — Arabian Knight and Cave Rock. This horse is doing well. It’s a good spot for him if he can get lucky. He can run first or second. Is he good enough? I think we’re going to find out.”
Baffert has won this race seven times, and a victory would break a tie with Robert Wyndham Walden for most Preakness wins by a trainer. Walden set his mark in the late 1800s. Five of Baffert’s winners came after they prevailed in the Kentucky Derby. The last non-Derby winner for Baffert was Lookin at Lucky in 2010.
“I don’t really think about records,” Baffert said. “If it happens, it happens. More importantly, I’d like to see all my horses run really well. The reason I’ve won it so many times is I’ve always had the best horse. The best horse usually wins this race.”
On Friday, arguably Baffert’s best shot at a win, Faiza, came up short in the $300,000 Black-Eyed Susan Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. She was undefeated in five races and last won the Santa Anita Oaks by 6½ lengths. The winner was 11-1 long shot Taxed.
Baffert has two other horses running Saturday. Arabian Lion is the 2-5 favorite in the Sir Barton Stakes, a 1 1/16-mile race for 3-year-olds, and Havnameltdown is the 8-5 favorite in the six-furlong Chick Lang Stakes.
Victories in the undercard races would be good, but Baffert acknowledged that’s not why people come to the Preakness.
“It’s all about the Derby winner,” Baffert said. “It’s all about Mage. The fans are here to watch Mage run, not here to watch National Treasure. They want to see him win and go on to the Belmont and keep the party going.”
Baffert didn’t dwell on his time away from the Triple Crown. Last year, he would have been eligible to run in the Preakness if he hadn’t been serving a 90-day suspension from the Medina Spirit positive, almost a year later.
“If you come with a good horse, you miss it,” Baffert said. “If you have one that you don’t think can win it, you don’t miss it. It’s like any race I go to: You want to go there with a horse that is live. There is nothing worse than going somewhere when you know you don’t have a chance.”
Baffert has three chances left, with one of them more important than all the rest.