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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert is absent from Churchill Downs, and his Barn 33, once the epicenter of the backside during Derby week, is oddly silent, but as the 148th running of the Kentucky Derby draws closer, the two-time Triple Crown-winning trainer is hardly forgotten.
The colts he trained until the end of March, Messier and Taiba, will be front of mind among casual fans and horseplayers on Saturday and very likely at the front of the pack after the gates of America’s most famous race open.
Baffert is serving a 90-day suspension handed down by Kentucky regulators after Medina Spirit, the apparent winner of last year’s Derby, failed a drug test and was disqualified.
The ongoing horse opera now has a new leading man: Tim Yakteen. He is a former assistant and longtime friend of Baffert and knows the Hall of Famer’s system well.
“I sort of had a lottery ticket dropped in my lap,” Yakteen, 57, said, “and I’m just trying to cash it in.”
This is his first Derby as a head trainer, a milestone that he conceded could be as nerve-racking as it is exciting. Messier and Taiba are contenders with similar front-running styles and will be ridden by Hall of Fame jockeys — John Velazquez aboard Messier and Mike Smith on Taiba.
“I was hoping to try and keep a low profile,” said Yakteen, who was born in Germany while his father was serving in the military and moved to the United States at 18. “That might not be as easily accomplished as I would be hoping.”
Messier (8-1 in the morning line) is the more seasoned of the pair, a two-time stakes winner who has never finished worse than second. But the undefeated Taiba (12-1) is the most intriguing colt in the 20-horse field.
He is trying to win the Derby after only two starts, a feat accomplished only once before, by a horse named Leonatus in 1883. Taiba won his debut race by more than seven lengths in March, then blew past Messier in the stretch to win the Santa Anita Derby by two and a quarter lengths in April.
Asmussen and Brown are still searching for their first Derby victories.
Despite their enormous success in the sport, the veteran trainers Steve Asmussen and Chad Brown are still looking to add Derby victories to their extensive résumés.
Asmussen, 56, became the career leader among trainers in North America when he won his 9,446th race in 2021, and he has won eight Breeders’ Cup races, two Preakness Stakes and one Belmont Stakes. He was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2016.
In 2020, he surpassed Dale Romans for the most career victories among trainers at Churchill Downs. And yet he has somehow never won a Derby in 23 tries. Nehro finished second in 2011, and Lookin at Lee followed suit in 2017. Curlin, the horse of the year in 2007, finished third that year. Gun Runner, another horse of the year who is proving himself as a stallion, siring this year’s entrants Taiba and Cyberknife, finished third in 2016.
This year, Asmussen will have another stellar shot with Epicenter, the Louisiana Derby winner who is 7-2 on the morning line and could be the favorite come post time.
Asked if he was nervous this time around, Asmussen laughed. “Well, I’m not running,” he said.
Brown, 43, also knows about Derby woes. Despite winning 15 Breeders’ Cup races and earning the Eclipse Award for outstanding trainer four years in a row, he is 0 for 7 in the Run for the Roses. His best finish came in 2018, with Good Magic finishing second.
Brown has perhaps his strongest contender yet in Zandon, the winner of the Blue Grass Stakes last month, who is the morning-line favorite at 3-1.
For Brown, a win in the Derby would pay tribute to his mentor, Bobby Frankel, the Hall of Fame trainer who died in 2009 without having secured the sport’s most cherished prize.
“It was the one race that eluded him,” Brown said. “Very late in his career it was on his mind. To win the race would be an honor and a testament to him because he taught me everything.”
After two years of pandemic restrictions, Derby organizers say: Let’s party!
Churchill Downs regularly hosts more than 150,000 revelers on Derby day, but the pandemic put a damper on the party the past two years.
In 2020, the Belmont Stakes, normally the final leg of the Triple Crown, was held in June, the Derby in September and the Preakness, usually the second of the three races, came last, with a new date in October. None allowed fans.
All returned to their regular spots on the calendar in 2021 but allowed a reduced number of patrons. The announced crowd for the Derby was 51,838.
This year, there is no cap on attendance and no masks are required.
“We’ve always said that we would adhere to whatever the state of Kentucky was operating under, and at this time, there are no capacity restrictions in restaurants, sporting facilities, no mask requirements or requirements to show vaccination,” said Tonya Abeln, a spokeswoman for Churchill Downs.
One popular change from last year has returned and even expanded, albeit with a significant hike in ticket prices: All seats include unlimited food and drinks, a move intended to reduce lines and the exchange of money. (Fans in the infield will still be confined there and will have to pay $12 for a mint julep, although a paddock redesign that is expected to be completed for the 150th Derby should bring back the standing-only ticket option.)
Last year, vendors wandered the aisles freely passing out drinks, and there were no lines, even for the bathrooms. “Isn’t this great?” was a common phrase heard around the grounds.
“We received an overwhelming response from our guests in attendance that they preferred the ease and convenience of the all-inclusive experience, so we made the decision to expand that to our full-capacity event this year,” Abeln said.
Crown Pride is the latest Japanese racing success story, and other story lines.
With lightning-fast workouts and an unusual warm-up routine that makes him look more like a dressage competitor than a racehorse, Crown Pride has turned heads in the mornings since he arrived from Dubai off a runaway win in the U.A.E. Derby.
In the past year, Japanese horses have had several strong showings on the international stage and in the United States, and in November, they notched their first Breeders’ Cup victories when Loves Only You won the Filly & Mare Turf and Marche Lorraine won the Distaff.
Crown Pride is perhaps Japan’s best hope yet for a Derby victory. Three other Japanese horses have run in the race since 1995, finishing sixth, ninth and 14th.
Want more to root for?
Names are popular. Happy Jack is named after a song by The Who. Messier, who is trying to become the third Canadian-bred horse to win the Derby, was named after the hockey great Mark Messier. Cyberknife is named after the treatment that sent his owner Al Gold’s cancer into remission. Gold has been inviting cancer patients to the barns to meet his horse.
Personal achievements are always special, too. Smith, aboard Taiba, will try to become the oldest jockey to win the Derby at 56. Beside Yakteen, five other trainers will be saddling their first Derby horses: Bhupat Seemar (Summer Is Tomorrow), Koichi Shintani (Crown Pride), John Ortiz (Barber Road), Brian Lynch (Classic Causeway) and Eric Reed (Rich Strike).
Reed didn’t know that until Friday morning, when D. Wayne Lukas, 86, scratched what would have been his 50th Derby horse, Ethereal Road. “They’re giving me CPR right now,” Reed joked with reporters.