Bob Baffert, normally a regular at the annual Kentucky Thoroughbred Owners and Breeders trainers’ dinner held Tuesday evening before the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), was an unexpected no-show this time around. Fellow Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas took the opportunity to razz his buddy, highlighting a night of good humor at the Hyatt Regency in downtown Louisville April 27.
After telling co-hosts Todd Schrupp and Paul Rogers he didn’t know where Baffert was despite “coaching him” on everything from training to what to wear in the morning, Lukas was asked what Baffert’s wife, Jill, did if her husband received all that friendly advice from his friend.
“(Jill) looks after him like (their son) Bodie,” Lukas quipped. “Just like he’s one of her own.”
Lukas’ wisecrack earned the loudest applause of the night from the audience, but there were plenty of other laughs throughout the evening.
Todd Pletcher, who normally does not attend, was an unexpected surprise at the dinner. After assessing the chances of each of his four Derby hopefuls, Pletcher was reminded by Schrupp that his only Triple Crown win came with Rags to Riches in 2007, after which the two exchanged a congratulatory “awkward hug.” When Schrupp jokingly apologized for initiating the uncomfortable incident, Pletcher said, “It’s OK,” and gave Schrupp another hug, drawing laughter from the crowd.
Near the end of the evening, Schrupp also reminded Pletcher, who is a well-documented 0-for-24 in the Kentucky Derby, that he likely holds the title of the “best trainer not to win the Derby.” When asked if that title bothers him, Pletcher smiled, “Yeah, a little bit.”
During his time on stage, Pletcher was also asked by Schrupp if they should show a video highlight of Interactif. It was an attempt by Schrupp to get Pletcher to tip his hand on the colt’s status, since earlier that morning Pletcher said he would not announce his decision until Wednesday morning if he would enter the colt. Pletcher responded, “probably not,” all but announcing that Interactif would not be entered and thereby leaving the door open for Backtalk to get it in.
Noble’s Promise trainer Ken McPeek drew a pair of laughs when he announced “If Lookin At Lucky wasn’t around, we’d be the favorite,” and later when he said his team went "over budget” for the $10,000 weanling purchase.
Mike Maker retold a funny story about how he convinced Kentucky Attorney General Jack Conway, owner of longshot Stately Victor, to enter the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I), saying he “had to sneak” Conway some vodka to get him to agree. Stately Victor later went on to pull a 40-1 upset in the Blue Grass.
Shannon Ritter, attempting to become the first ever female trainer to win the Derby with WinStar Farm’s Endorsement, joked that she normally doesn’t think about that aspect of winning, “but reporters keep reminding me.” Ritter also was asked by Schrupp if she is now going to get “all of WinStar’s first stringers.” To which Ritter responded, “I better perform well in this race.”
Eoin Harty was asked what took Illinois Derby (gr. III) winner American Lion so long to turn it around in his up-and-down 3-year-old season. The Irish-born trainer responded, “I don’t know. I think I’ll have to go ask him.”
Wayne Tanner, assistant to Awesome Act trainer Jeremy Noseda and a native of England, was reminded by Schrupp that the horse’s co-owner, Tom Ludt of Vinery Stables, said he would have to stay in the United States as a good luck charm if the Awesome Again colt won the Derby. To which Tanner responded, “If I’m still here in June, that means we’ve had a good time.”
Honored at the dinner was Chip Woolley, trainer of last year’s Derby winner Mine That Bird. Woolley, who spoke alongside Marylou Whitney, choked back tears after seeing a video tribute to the 50-1 longshot winner.
“I’m much more emotional this year than last year,” he said. “To watch that race, it’s unbelievable what happened. I hate it, every time I see it I get choked up. (The Derby) is the greatest race in the world. Period.”