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BOZICH | Baffert’s Big Kentucky Derby Idea: NIT Derby On Undercard
Posted: Apr 27, 2014 9:00 AM MDT Updated: Apr 29, 2014 9:07 AM MDT
By Rick Bozich – rbozich@wdrb.com

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Bob Baffert has won the Kentucky Derby three times. He’s a bright, imaginative, outspoken guy who thinks about ways to keep horse racing in the sports conversation for more than two minutes and change on the first Saturday in May.

Baffert is training a Derby longshot named Chitu for the race Saturday. But Baffert has an another idea that’s a winner:

The NIT Derby.

Consider it a race for 3-year-olds who aren’t quite ready for the mile-and-a-quarter that would be run earlier on the Saturday card at Churchill Downs.

The top 20 3-year-olds remain in the main event. The next 20 3-year-olds with trainers and owners who think they belong race earlier on Derby Day.

“I’d like to see them have an undercard with another three-year-old race worth $500,000,” Baffert said. “Call it the NIT Derby or whatever. Run it at a mile and an eighth for the guys who want to be here on the big day.

“Everybody likes to be here on the big day. They’d probably have another 20 in there. It’d be a good gambling race. I think it’d really jive up the Triple Crown a little bit.”

This isn’t Baffert being flip. This is Baffert thinking about a way to showcase more 3-year-olds on the day when the largest horse racing audience of the year is watching.

You run the NIT Derby (create your own name — the floor is officially open) several hours before the Derby and show the replay early in the NBC telecast.

The idea would be to uncover several improving runners who could return two weeks later to challenge the top Derby horses in the Preakness in Baltimore. The Preakness could use the marketing juice, too.

You say that’s the purpose of the Derby Trial?

The Derby Trial is mostly irrelevant – and has been for many years.

“They actually could eliminate the Derby Trial,” Baffert said. “It’d probably be a better race.”

I asked Baffert if he has floated his idea with the big-picture thinkers at Churchill Downs. Put a poll up on the new Churchill video board.

“No,” he said. “I have to fight for tickets. I have to grovel for tickets. It has to be their idea. It cannot be my idea.”

Baffert won the Derby three times in his first seven visits to Louisville – with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem in 2002. Since then, Baffert is 0-for-11 with an average finish of 11th. Chitu looks like 0-for-12.

But the NIT Derby wasn’t Baffert’s final suggestion for improving Derby Day. He also believes the Derby purse should be upgraded from the current $2 million minimum.

Chitu, a colt who has won three of his four starts, comes to Kentucky Derby 140 after winning the Sunland Park Derby on March 23. 

That race is not run at Santa Anita, Gulfstream or Aqueduct. It’s run at Sunland Park in El Paso, Texas. Baffert trained Chitu and Midnight Hawk, who finished one-two in the race. That race was worth $800,000 – and Chitu has earned $440,000 in only two starts this year.

“There are two types of Derbies,” Baffert said. “There’s the Derby where they drape roses over you. And there’s the Derbies where they hand you big fat checks. He was on the fat check Derby list. These preps, they’ve made them where a guy can make a lot of money. 

“We’re in it where we want to make some money with it and also have fun. (Chitu) is coming out of the Fat Check Derby. Now he’s going for the roses.”

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