Baffert returns to Derby with Mor Spirit

By Beth Harris

AP Racing Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — Bob Baffert feels under the radar with his latest horse at the Kentucky Derby. All anyone wants to talk about is American Pharoah, last year’s winner who went on to become the sport’s first Triple Crown champion in 37 years.

Outside his barn at Churchill Downs, visitors pull special edition bourbon bottles decorated in Pharoah’s teal silks out of plastic grocery bags for the Hall of Fame trainer to sign. He listens patiently while they recount their memories of the people-loving colt, “who made them feel so good,” Baffert said.

He calls it the “American Pharoah hangover.” Clearly it’s the best kind to have.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever see one that intelligent, that kind, where I could bring him out here and you guys could be all over him. He didn’t care, he loved human contact,” Baffert said. “Nobody flies that much and runs that well. It’s just crazy that he could handle it. I don’t think we’ll see one that tough.”

Earlier in the week, Baffert and wife Jill visited American Pharoah at his new home in Lexington, where the colt is busy producing possible future Derby runners when he’s not greeting the public five days a week.

“It was a little emotional. It was like going to visit your child at camp,” Baffert said. “I think he recognized Jill. She talks to him in this little high sweet voice and he nickered to her. He’s still really sweet and kind. They let me walk him around and be by myself with him.”

Then it was time to get in the car and drive back to reality.

Waiting at Baffert’s barn with a view of the twin spires was Mor Spirit, another horse like Pharoah with a misspelled name. He has never been worse than second in seven career starts. Mor Spirit has previously mixed it up with some of his Derby competition, finishing second to Exaggerator in the Santa Anita Derby and second to Danzing Candy in the San Felipe in his most recent starts.

“Expectations might be a little bit lower,” Baffert said. “Turning for home if he’s right there I know he’ll fight and get a piece of it.”

Notice he didn’t say win.

“You have a lot of horses here that are pretty equal,” he said. “There’s so much parity, they haven’t really separated themselves. Maybe there will be another American Pharoah. Maybe Derby day some horse is just going to step up and say, ‘Hey, I’m the one.’”

That’s what Pharoah did last year, setting Baffert and his family, owner Ahmed Zayat, jockey Victor Espinoza and the stable help on a historic journey that captured the public’s imagination in a way horse racing rarely does anymore.

“When Victor came off him after the Breeders’ Cup,” Baffert said, “I told him we’ll never have another American Pharoah.”

Still, he’s always searching. All of Baffert’s other Derby candidates fell by the wayside for one reason or another this winter, leaving Mor Spirit still standing. He’ll be ridden by Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens.

“He’s done everything well since he’s been here,” the trainer said. “He really likes the surface and that’s very important.”

The last time a Baffert horse started the Kentucky Derby from post 17 was Point Given in 2001, with Stevens aboard. They finished fifth as the 9-5 favorite that Saturday in May before going on to win the Preakness and Belmont as well as Horse of the Year honors.

No horse has ever won the Derby from that post, where Mor Spirit landed.

“We’ll just have to make history again this year,” Baffert said.

By Beth Harris

AP Racing Writer

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