ARCADIA, Calif. — Ironically, records don’t mean much to one of the most decorated thoroughbred trainers in the history of horse racing. For someone who’s “never been one for worrying about records” Hall of Fame trainer, Bob Baffert, sure racks them up. On May 2, he will try and tie Ben A. Jones’ nearly 60-year old record of six Kentucky Derby wins, a feat that some would argue is more impressive in the Baffert era.
Jones’ record was once seen as unbreakable. In fact, when he won his last Kentucky Derby in 1952, having broken Herbert J. Thompson’s previous record of four Derby wins, no other trainer had won more than three. No one would even eclipse three until D. Wayne Lukas took home the wreath of roses with Charismatic in 1999, nearly half a century later. At that point, Baffert had just won his first two Derbies and Lukas had won three in five year and he’s been chasing his fifth since that first Saturday in May 21 years ago.
Baffert has trained five horses to Kentucky Derby glory (part of his 15 Triple Crown race victories) beginning with Silver Charm in 1997. His second Derby came the following year, 1998, with Real Quiet, and his third followed in 2002 with War Emblem. It took another thirteen years before he stood in the most celebrated winner’s circle in horse racing, but he made history that year by leading American Pharoah to the 2015 Triple Crown. AP became the first horse to win the Triple Crown since Affirmed’s famed battles with Alydar in 1978, further adding to his Hall of Fame resume. Baffert joined Jones as the only other trainer to win multiple Triple Crowns four years later when he led to Justify to an undefeated 6-0 record, including his fifth Derby win, and culminating in a runaway Belmont Stakes victory.
If Baffert is going to tie Jones’ record this year, he will most likely do it with one of these trio of colts:
Nadal–The undefeated (2-0) chestnut Charge colt out of Ascending Angel won the seven furlong San Vicente Stakes (G2) this past Sunday (Feb. 9) at Baffert’s home track of Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, California. He showed his raw speed by rocketing through the opening four furlongs in a blistering 44.09 seconds. As Baffert said of the lightning half mile pace, “he’ll never have to run that fast again…[but] I like the way he gutted it out” The trainer went on to build up his colt saying “It’s very rare you see a horse run a race like that, especially in their second start. Only the good ones can do stuff like that. He’s tough.” He also believes Nadal “should have any trouble stretching out” to two turns as he continues to build towards a potential Derby spot and its classic mile and a quarter distance. The lightly raced 3-year old never made a start as a juvenile, something frowned upon before Baffert and Justify broke Apollo’s Curse back in ’18. Justify became the first horse since Apollo in 1882 to win the Derby without racing as a 2-year old. That being said, despite no juvenile starts, Nadal now has two wins under his belt since January 19, and he aims to make it three in his next start in the Rebel Stakes (G2) on March 14 at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas.
Thousand Words–This Pioneerof the Nile colt out of Pomeroys Pistol is also undefeated (3-0) with two juvenile wins, including December’s Los Alamitos Futurity (G2). Thousand Words carries the breed shaping blood of the late stallion Empire Maker and according to Baffert is only “getting better.” The “very professional” colt is a “grinder” and just “wants to win.” The 3-year old has gone 1 1/16 miles twice in his young career but still has some stretching out to do. Baffert believes the Derby’s 1 1/4 mile distance should bring out the very best in Thousand Words. All three of TW’s career starts have come in “The Golden State” and that trend looks to stay the same as he is set to run next in March 7’s San Felipe Stakes (G2) which also happens to be at Santa Anita Park.
Authentic–This Into Mischief colt out of Flawless, another undefeated (2-0) steed in Baffert’s barn, is “just a raw talent” according to his trainer. The Sham Stakes (G3) winner overcame his own self-inflicted error in ducking towards the inner rail mid-stretch to win the mile race in 1:37.57 back on January 4. The theory is that he ducked towards the rail to get away from the grandstand noise so he has since been equipped with earplugs. This is a trick Baffert used on American Pharoah after he was shaken by crowd noise in his first start as a juvenile in 2014 before he went on his two year run to the Triple Crown. The earplugs seem to have worked for now with Authentic having breezed to a bullet three-quarter mile workout at 1:12.30. Time will tell if the plugs will help unleash the full talent inside the young colt, but he is set to face off against Thousand Words in March 7’s San Felipe Stakes (G3) so something has to give for the two Baffert undefeateds.
If Baffert is able to bring home another Kentucky Derby title this May, he will tie the legendary Ben A. Jones with six. Jones, who trained his final five Derby winners for the storied Calumet Farm, brought home his first Derby in 1938 with Lawrin for owner Herbert M. Woolf. He then went on to win in 1941 (Whirlaway), 1944 (Pensive), 1948 (Citation), 1951 (Ponder) and 1952 (Hill Gail).
Jones’ Derby wins record has stood for 58 years but Baffert will have his second chance at tying it since winning his fifth in 2018 on the way to Justify’s epic Triple Crown. Not to take anything away from Jones’ nearly 60-year old record, but it can be argued that winning the Kentucky Derby is tougher today than it was in his time. The biggest reason is there is a substantially larger pool of horses today than there was when Jones was training. Jones’ first Derby winner, Lawrin, was foaled in 1935 and that year there were a total of 5,038 foals in the North American crop. In 1994, when Baffert’s first Derby winner, Silver Charm, was foaled, the North American foal crop was 35,341. The 1994 crop was more than seven times larger than 1935, meaning, statistically speaking, it was was more than seven times harder to win.
The aforementioned six horses that Ben Jones won with came from crops (1935, 1938, 1941, 1945, 1948 & 1949) totaling 38,707 foals. Those numbers split between the six crops averaged out to just under 6,500 foals per crop. In contrast, the crops of the five Derby winners that Baffert has trained total 153,830 averaging out to 30,766 foals. The average crop that Baffert has trained his five Derby champs out of is less than 8,000 horses fewer than the combined total of the crops all six of Jones’ winners came from. The exponential growth of the yearly foal crops has led the Kentucky Derby to limit its field to twenty horses, leading to the development of a special 20-stall gate just for the Derby. In contrast, the average field Jones faced in a Kentucky Derby was 13.
All of Jones’ Derby winners except for Ponder were ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Eddie Arcaro, whose record five Derby wins was equalled only by Bill Hartack between 1957 and 1969. Baffert’s five Derby victories have come under four different jockeys; Gary Stevens (’97) Kent Desormeaux (’98) Victor Espinoza (’02,’15) and Mike Smith (’18). Also, as mentioned before, five of Jones’ six Derby champs were trained for Calumet Farm, the most revered name in the history of thoroughbred racing, and winners of a record eight Kentucky Derby titles. Each of Baffert’s five wins has come for a different owner.
The 67-year old Nogales, Arizona-native, a man who was once “just hoping that one day [he’d] be training 20 horses” has, today, trained 20 champions, including three Horses of the Year. He has amassed over 3,000 career wins and earned more than $300 million on his way to becoming the face of his sport. If you had told that twenty-something quarter horse trainer at Rillito Park in Tucson in the 70’s that he would one day have a silver mane, be thoroughbred racing’s most recognizable figure and be on the verge of breaking Jones’ Derby record, he’d have just been happy he had reached his goal of a 20-horse stable.