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Emotional Bob Baffert happy with second this time

LOUISVILLE, Ky. — No argument with the winning gang in the Kentucky Derby. How could there be?

The horse, I’ll Have Another, once picked off the bargain rack for $35,000, and going out Saturday at 15-1.

The jockey, 25-year-old Mario Gutierrez, never having ridden a horse at Churchill Downs until Saturday. His first race, he finished 10th of 11. His second race, he won the Kentucky Derby.

The trainer, Doug O’Neill, and his brother and assistant, Dennis, always dreaming what this day would be like, hardly daring to think it would be now.

Doug on the reason for the long odds of his horse: “I think â(euro) ⅛ because of me training it and Mario riding it.”

Dennis on winning: “I never in a million years thought we could do this.”

The owner, J. Paul Reddam, naming his most famous horse from always wanting another cookie when watching television with his wife.

“We’re kind of a working-class group, from the trainer, the owner, the jockey,” he said. “We don’t come from the bluest of blood for horse racing. We recognize that, and that’s OK. The horse matches that absolutely, completely, right?”

Right. Very nice story.

But it wouldn’t have been awful if they’d all finished second.

Nothing personal, but wouldn’t the roses have looked nice on Bodemeister, who ran 90(PERCENT) of the Derby as if his name was Secretariat?

Wouldn’t the winning smile have been perfect for Bob Baffert, a trainer of legend, who without prompt attention could have died from a heart attack barely a month ago? One artery was blocked 100(PERCENT), another 90(PERCENT), so we’re talking getting to the doctors in time by a nose.

Bodemeister had the lead at the start Saturday, the lead in the middle, the lead at the head of the stretch. His fraction times would have made a stopwatch smoke. But would he last long enough? No.

I’ll Have Another ran him down in the end. Had Bodemeister been able to keep the pedal down just a moment longer, it would have been a classic Derby victory.

“He didn’t finish first,” jockey Mike Smith said. “But he’s still the winner.”

An hour later, the I’ll Have Another crew was still glowing in its winning news conference, secure in the record books for all time. The trainer with three new stents around his heart had left the track, answering questions alone over a cellphone.

The difference those last 100 yards can make.

“All a trainer can do is ask for his horse to show up,” Baffert said. “And he showed up.

“I really thought at the top of the stretch, we were witnessing a super horse ... but it was too good to be true.”

What an epic it would have been. A fourth Derby win for Baffert, only a month after he had to be rushed to a hospital in Dubai with a full range of cardiac red flags. And doing it with Bodemeister, named after his 7-year-old son Bode, who walked the track with his father Saturday before the race.

The son would have had a winning memory for a lifetime. His father, newly understanding of human frailty, would have had a day to cherish.

Almost. Who can quibble with the I’ll Have Another story? But still.

“I get emotional because my little boy’s involved,” Baffert said. “And all I’ve been through.”

But then, not everything worked out as the record crowd of 165,307 might have guessed Saturday. A race on the undercard included a horse named Big Blue Nation, and who would not bet the mortgage money on him, with Anthony Davis and several other Kentucky Wildcat basketball champions in the house?

Big Blue Nation finished eighth. So much for any coattails from the Final Four.

Meanwhile, Baffert has been around enough to know Saturday was just another slice of what his profession serves.

“That’s the only time I’ve run second where I’ve been happy, because he ran his race.”

He said he would remember his horse’s game effort, more than narrowly missing. “Other than not winning it, there’s no complaint. We got beat.”

That’s how he left Churchill Downs, a racing man with his family and a new chance at life, and a Kentucky Derby that just slipped away.

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