By Dan Liebman
When Bob Baffert won a record seventh GI Kentucky Derby May 1 with Medina Spirit (Protonico), I couldn't help but think back to the first time I met the conditioner.
Walking through the Keeneland barn area one mid-April morning in 1990, Baffert asked if I knew where the clockers were located at the track. We introduced ourselves to each other and I offered to show him the route to the press box, where the clockers were situated during training hours.
Baffert was in the process of switching from Quarter Horses to Thoroughbreds and had travelled to Keeneland with the first horse he hoped to run in the Derby–Thirty Slews.
Impressive winner of his first two starts in California the previous month, Baffert already had his sights set on racing's biggest prize. He shipped the son of Slewpy east to run in the Lexington S.
Thirty Slews ran third that day, behind Home At Last and Pleasant Tap, and shipped back to California while Unbridled won the Derby.
Though over the next three decades Baffert would strive–quite successfully–to find horses that could stay the Classic distance, it was apparent Thirty Slews could not.
He made 18 starts subsequent to the Lexington and only left California one other time. But the one time he did was monumental for Baffert.
Following a win in the 1992 Bing Crosby H., Thirty Slews was shipped to Florida, where he won the GI Breeders' Cup Sprint at Gulfstream Park for owners Mike Pegram, Mitch Degroot and Dutch Masters III.
Sent off at 19-1, Thirty Slews just got up by a neck over Meafara, who led every step of the way–except the last step.
Thirty Slews, the first Thoroughbred Baffert purchased at public auction ($30,000 at Keeneland September), had provided him with his first Grade I win.
It is interesting to think about this: Had Thirty Slews won the Lexington, Baffert may have run him in the Derby. A colt who was unraced at 2 and would have entered the starting gate on the first Saturday of May making just his fourth start.
Of course, no horse had won the Derby without racing as a juvenile since 1892 until Baffert did it with Justify in 2018, who would go on to become a Triple Crown winner.
And, it is Baffert who has redesigned the path to the Derby, proving you can run for–and win–the roses with fewer starts before the race than trainers thought horses needed not that many years ago.
Baffert took Thirty Slews, a $30,000 yearling, and turned him into a Grade I winner.
He took Medina Spirit–a $1,000 yearling turned $35,000 2-year-old–into a Derby winner.
A few races before Medina Spirit led every step of the way to win the Derby, Baffert trained Gamine won the GI Derby City Distaff, giving the trainer a record 220 Grade I wins.
Medina Spirit would give Baffert Grade I victory number 221.
But as he crossed the finish line, I was thinking about Baffert's first Grade I winner and the day I met the trainer at Keeneland.
With seven Derby scores, Baffert passed trainer “Plain Ben” Jones.
Since that spring day I first met Baffert 31 years ago, he has proven there is nothing plain about him.
He proved it once again May 1.