Dawn on Friday brought steady rain that turned the track and grounds at Churchill Downs to mud, and even worse news for white-haired trainer Bob Baffert. Beneath a light bulb in his barn on a morning that could be described only as grim, Baffert, with the deftness of a skilled detective finding a clue, discovered a dime-sized spot of tenderness in the left foreleg of his promising gray colt Wimbledon and, just like that, the horse and the three-time Derby-winning trainer were out of Saturday's 130th Kentucky Derby. "Expectations bring great disappointment," said Baffert's colleague and rival, Nick Zito, who will send out The Cliff's Edge, who opened as the morning-line favorite, and Birdstone, the long shot.
"I'm sure Bob is very disappointed," said Zito, under cover in Barn 36 but wet from his trip to the track to watch his two horses gallop. "You're just so close. And he had a shot, that horse. Don't tell me that horse didn't have a shot, now." Wimbledon was 15-1, but he had Baffert training him and Jerry Bailey ready to ride. Zito said he warned a friend about Wimbledon. "I said, 'You see that horse there. That's the horse I'm worried about.' As much emphasis as Bob puts on the Derby, he's got to be devastated. Even though he's got three beautiful trophies, three great wins, it's devastating."
Zito understood the fate of a fellow trainer in the horse business, who more than a boxing trainer or a baseball manager or a football or basketball coach, more than the brains in almost any sport, is subject to the most merciless vagaries. Almost anything can happen. And almost none of it is good. Everything from a tiny injury to a big thunderstorm can spoil a trainer's dreams. And it can happen in a moment. Baffert wasn't sure what moment Wimbledon got hurt, only that it happened overnight. "We don't know if he hit himself, or what," the trainer said quietly to a few damp early visitors to the track's backside. "He wasn't lame or anything. I don't think it's a career-ending injury. But it's enough that we don't feel comfortable running him."
Baffert used the very word Zito did — devastating — to describe his feeling on having to drop out on the eve of America's greatest thoroughbred race. "Something like this has never happened to me. I've been really fortunate," Baffert said. "But it hit our barn this morning, and it was devastating."
Not only was Wimbledon scratched, and later Friday the 30-1 St Averil, in effect, the trainer also was scratched. More than the owner and the jockey, the trainer generally suffers the greatest anguish when something goes wrong because he is the one who has been with the horse almost all the time. For weeks, for months, maybe for a year or more, the trainer has been there for all the uncertain steps taken by his thousand-pound flier held up contradictorily by thin, delicate legs, a skyscraper built on stilts. He has done the work day and night that for the most part goes unseen, and the fine-tuning. He has kept the owner informed. He has lined up the jockey. But he is the one who has put all the labor into it, and all the thought. There must be joy in the journey a trainer takes because, in most cases, the payoff is some kind of disappointment.
Even for the best of them. Even for Baffert. Especially Derby week.
"This horse had really been looking great," he said, his usual supreme confidence now absent. "He was going to run a good race, especially with the wet weather. He loves a wet track. It's one of those things. These horses are so fragile. One little misstep. . . . As trainers, that's why we probably stay so uptight the whole week, because you know these things can happen and you don't want them to happen to you."
As Zito put it: "I told everybody in the beginning of the week, I know how Tom Hanks felt in 'Cast Away,' " the film in which Hanks's character survives a plane crash and then years on a remote island. "Believe me, this has been the longest journey for me as a trainer, preparing for this day tomorrow."
Not once but twice Zito thought his Derby chances were wrecked. Things began to go wrong for the 56-year-old New Yorker when his best bet, Eurosilver, developed a glandular infection. Then Birdstone came up with a high white blood-cell count that has kept him from the races since March 20. So while Birdstone is here, he has gone from being a favorite in earlier races to a morning-line 50-1. Resourcefully, Zito turned to the number three choice in his barn. The Cliff's Edge won the Blue Grass on April 10 at Keeneland to become the early 4-1 Derby favorite. A two-time Derby winner, Zito had survived treachery familiar to trainers and made it back to racing's mainland.
Only now it was raining.
And showers were forecast for Saturday.
"I don't think anybody wants that track the way you see it now," Zito said after seeing his horses pound through the rain.
He looked concerned, if only for a moment, when he said of his main hope, The Cliff's Edge: "He's never raced on an off-track."
"Birdstone looks like he handles that track."
What's a horse trainer to do?
"Listen, 10 years ago I said, 'You can't tell God, don't let it rain, and you can't put a dome on the track.' "
Now Zito had to wonder whether the rain would affect his plans. Would those plans be swept away by a bad-weather front?
"There's nothing you can do other than what you do best to get your horse prepared for Saturday afternoon," Zito said. "The week's almost over. We get through this week, that's all you can ask for. If you get a horse in the gate, you should be grateful enough that you get to play."
By then, the trainer has said goodbye to the jockey in the paddock and taken a place in the stands. For Saturday's so-called greatest two minutes in sports, like any race, the trainer will have no control over what happens. He can't call time out. He can't change pitchers or quarterbacks, or make a halftime adjustment or a stirring speech. He was once fully in charge. Now he is left only to hope.
"You just hope it works out for the best," Zito said. "Whatever happens, happens. I think you have to approach it that way. I got two wonderful horses. I'm really blessed. That's the way it is."