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Closing Shot: Intrigue Builds For Kentucky Derby

Famed trainer Bob Baffert won’t be allowed to take part in the Run for the Roses this year, but many are still placing bets on a pair of horses that started racing under his watch.

By Liz Mullen
Medina Spirit (third from right) leads the field to the first turn in last year’s Kentucky Derby. The horse won the race but later failed a drug test and was disqualified.getty images

Thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert is banned from this year’s Kentucky Derby but his presence may be felt, as two of the favorites in the race on Saturday, May 7 — including the most precocious horse to come along in years — started their careers under his tutelage.

“I think the story, the big story is that Bob Baffert is not there, but his horses are,” said former Hall of Fame jockey and now NBC horse racing analyst Jerry Bailey. “The horses he used to have are.” 

Taiba and Messier finished first and second, respectively, in the Santa Anita Derby and are the fastest horses, on the speed figures, going into the Derby. But Taiba has only run in two races, and no horse with that inexperience has ever won the Kentucky Derby. 

Bailey won numerous awards and races, including the Kentucky Derby twice as a jockey, before becoming a broadcaster. “I was in 17 Derbys and I was never on one that has near the talent that this horse has,” he said of Taiba.

Both Messier and Taiba are trained by Tim Yakteen, Baffert’s former assistant who is now working as an independent trainer. Baffert turned both horses over to Yakteen in light of his suspension. He was banned from Churchill Downs for two years after the steroid betamethasone was found in the drug test of Medina Spirit, last year’s Kentucky Derby winner, trained by Baffert, after the race. 

The owner of Medina Spirit, Amr Zedan, also owns Taiba. Messier is owned by a partnership of stables and other investors. Taiba and Messier are among five horses that could be the favorite when the gates open on the Run for the Roses on Saturday.

“Wouldn’t it be amazing if either Messier or Taiba wins?” said NBC horse racing analyst Randy Moss. “Right now Bob [Baffert] is tied with Ben Jones for six Kentucky Derby wins.

“Were it not for the veterinarian putting betamethasone cream on a skin rash, then Bob would have seven Kentucky Derby wins. And if it were not for that, he wouldn’t be suspended right now, so he would have eight Kentucky Derby wins if one of these horses manages to win this year.”

This is the first year since the pandemic started that Moss and Bailey will be together again at Churchill Downs, beginning Monday when they will interview the trainers of all 20 horses entered in the race. The pair are inseparable when they are preparing to report on the hardest horse race in the world to handicap. They will stay in the same hotel, wake before dawn, go to Starbucks and then to Churchill Downs, where they will spend the day interviewing all of the trainers in the race.

In a way, Bailey said, it was faster to interview them by phone as they did the past two years, “But you can’t see the truth in their eyes like you can in person.” 

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