Monday, April 25, 2011

The X Factor

--Andy Belfiore

Mornings on the Churchill backstretch 12 days before the Kentucky Derby, it’s quiet. Trainer Jinks Fires, black cowboy hat pushed back, was getting miked for an interview, and there were a few reporters making the rounds between rainstorms, but it still feels pretty relaxed.

The Factor was out for a gallop just as the sloppy main track opened to the masses after the Derby/Oaks training session. He was on the muscle as he came by the Twin Spires the second time, egged on by a horse breezing past as he hit the wire. Trainer Bob Baffert still hasn’t made a call on the Derby, though. The colt entrapped during the Arkansas Derby before fading to seventh. “It was bad,” Baffert said Monday morning. “He was gurgling.” Turns out, The Factor had minor throat surgery shortly after arriving at Churchill, to see if that might help alleviate the problem. He will breeze Wednesday morning, but Baffert is in no hurry to make a decision on his next start. “I’m not even thinking about the Derby,” he claimed. “There’s no pressure.”

Well, that may be true—Baffert’s been down this road a time or two, and he knows what it takes to get to the winner’s circle on the first Saturday in May. He’s won it three times, and hit the board four more, in the 15 years since his first starter, Cavonnier, got beat a sliver by Grindstone. But I’d wager good money he’d love to get there with The Factor. No matter how long they’ve been in the business, no matter how many have circled their sheds, most trainers can’t help getting that Christmas morning grin when they talk about special horses. And when the topic is The Factor, Baffert has a gleam in his eye.

And, in fact, Baffert has given some thought to the Derby. If The Factor gets the green light, it will be green all the way. There will be no holding back. Baffert had no intention of letting the 3-year-old burn himself out in Hot Springs. “You just couldn’t do that,” he said. “You go in :21, :45, and you don’t have a horse left.” But tactics will change in Kentucky. “It’s the Derby,” Baffert said. “You only get one shot.” The Factor will only run if he is A-Game ready. “I’ve got to feel good about it,” Baffert said. But don’t toss those Future Bet tickets just yet.

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