Sort It Out hasn't won since February's Whirlaway Stakes, but don't count him out of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) just yet.
"I'm not in the top 10; I'm in the bottom 10," said the colt's trainer, Bob Baffert, Saturday morning at Churchill Downs. "But I'm still going into it like I'm going to try to win it. I would never be in the Derby with a horse that had absolutely no chance. This week, if I train him and I see something that I just don't like, I'm not going to run him. But, he's improving. I think he's coming up to a big race."
Sort It Out joined Baffert's barn after Robert and Janice McNair's Stonerside Stable bought into the colt following his Whirlaway win. He floundered in the Louisiana Derby (gr. II), finishing eighth, and then was third in the WinStar Derby. In his most recent effort, he was second, beaten 3 ½ lengths, in the Lexington Stakes (gr. II).
"It was a pretty mucky deal, but he was still running," Baffert said. "That definitely was his best race."
The trainer, who has saddled three Kentucky Derby winners, thought he might be starting to get Sort It Out "sorted out" just prior to the Lexington.
"The talent is there, but it's been hard just getting it to come to the surface," Baffert said. "We're finally cracking the surface a little bit with him. When I first got him, he led like a borrowed dog. You had to pull him around everywhere. He was just so quiet. He wouldn't really wake up. And, finally, the week before the Lexington Stakes, he started to perk up and play. He never played. I thought, 'Maybe this is just a really relaxed dude.' After he came out of the Lexington, he was here (Churchill Downs) and he was squealing coming off the track. He never does that. He's waking up at the right time."
However, Sort It Out will need some help to have a shot at Derby glory.
"He needs a hot pace to be effective," Baffert said. "With no hot pace, he's not going to be effective. I just hope somebody goes after that horse (Bellamy Road)."
In choosing a Derby rider for Sort it Out, Baffert said it was between Patrick Valenzuela and Brice Blanc. But Valenzuela has chosen Lexington Stakes winner Coin Silver. Blanc was aboard Sort It Out for the first time in the Lexington.
"I sort of told him (Valenzuela) that I would probably stick with Brice," Baffert said. "I've had a lot of luck with Brice. He is one of the great turf riders in America, and this horse sort of has to be ridden like that. He has to be ridden with patience early, and then you let him put his run in."
But even if Sort It Out gets a perfect trip, Baffert admitted that winning the Derby will still be a challenge because of the quality of this year's field.
"It's very strong Derby field, a really strong field," Baffert said. "This crop, down the road, they're going to make the transition easy and be good older horses.
"Bellamy Road and Afleet Alex, they're the standouts. If Bellamy Road gets a War Emblem trip, then he's gone and forget about it. Afleet Alex, for some reason, he doesn't get any respect, but he's a really good horse. And he really fits the Derby profile. He's tough. He's had a lot of races. He's won on different tracks. You need that mental toughness for the Derby. Afleet Alex, of all the horses, he has it.
"Greeley's Galaxy, that thing of Warren Stute's; he's a good horse. Nobody is talking about him, but he's a very good horse. He's coming around. And Bandini, look at the way he looked (while winning the Blue Grass Stakes, gr. I), he just galloped. Of the all the races, perhaps, that's the one you can sort of overlook, the Blue Grass, because of the Keeneland racetrack. I think High Limit is a lot better horse. I don't think he (trainer Bobby Frankel) had him that fit for that race. He's green, and he's still jumping tracks. He'll be a factor. And Consolidator, when he runs, he's a good horse, but he just didn't run in the Blue Grass. He was behind horses. If you go back and look at Consolidator's race in the San Felipe (gr. II), nobody was going to beat him that day. If he can repeat that, he can put the heat on Bellamy Road."
If the Derby field is so good, then why try to tackle them with a colt who is just getting sorted out? Is it because the McNairs invested in Sort It Out with the idea of running him for the roses?
"No" was Baffert's reply. "They left it up to me," he said. "If I said no, they would say no."
"If your horse is training well and moving forward, you've got a chance to get a piece of pie," Baffert explained. "I've been here myself with some really good horses, and they falter. You can't win it unless you're in there. And we're in there."