California connection Free House, Hello in run, but 'Charm' making believers

May 01, 1997|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The first question for Bob Baffert is always the same: Do you think a lot about last year's Kentucky Derby?

"I get reminded about it every day -- at least a hundred times," Baffert says.

Last year, he watched in disbelieving exhilaration as Cavonnier stormed into the lead in the stretch, and then -- to Baffert's eye -- held off the late-charging Grindstone. For five minutes, as judges contemplated the outcome, Baffert thought he had won the Kentucky Derby in his first try.

But the finish-line photograph showed that Grindstone, not Cavonnier, crossed the wire a nose in front. Baffert's emotions crashed.

Five weeks later, Cavonnier broke down making what appeared to be a winning move in the Belmont Stakes. The California-bred gelding survived but was retired. Again, Baffert was crushed.

Now, he is back for Saturday's Derby with his crinkly grin and the horse that seemingly everyone on the backstretch likes: Silver Charm.

"I saw Captain Bodgit breeze [Tuesday], and I thought his breeze was OK," said Lynn Whiting, an astute horseman and trainer of Phantom On Tour. "But then I saw Silver Charm right behind him. If I was Bob Baffert, I'd be grinning ear-to-ear."

Baffert is -- but not merely because of Silver Charm, whom he says is sitting on the race of his young life. The white-haired Baffert, 44, is a fun-loving, southern-California guy who in one year on the national racing stage has become a star.

"I'm one of those quarter-horse guys," he says of his background training the high-spirited horses that run like the devil in quarter-mile races. "That was like going to a fair. Win, lose or draw, it didn't matter. Everybody had a good time."

Little has changed.

"I'm in it for the fun -- not the money, not the fame," he says. "Luckily, I've stumbled upon some really good horses, and that makes it really fun."

Silver Charm, a gray son of Silver Buck, has never finished worse than second. In six races in California, he has three firsts and three seconds. But he lost his last two, both to Free House, also here for the Derby.

Nevertheless, Silver Charm probably will be third choice in the Derby (behind Pulpit and Captain Bodgit), and Free House may languish at odds higher than 10-1. Hello, the third California entrant, likely will be an even greater price.

Gary Stevens, who has won the Kentucky Derby aboard Winning Colors and Thunder Gulch, will ride Silver Charm. Stevens' selection to the National Thoroughbred Hall of Fame was announced yesterday.

"I love his style for the Kentucky Derby," Stevens says of Silver Charm. "The colt's got good tactical speed. You can place him about anywhere you want to. That's really important in a race like this."

On March 16 in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe Stakes, Silver Charm's first race longer than seven furlongs, he closed mightily but fell short of Free House by three-quarters of a length. On April 5 in the 1 1/8 -mile Santa Anita Derby, he challenged the speedy filly Sharp Cat early and then battled a closing Free House late. Free House, a lighter gray than Silver Charm, prevailed by a head.

"He should have folded up like Sharp Cat," Baffert says of his colt. "But he didn't. He kept going.

"Then the gray horse went by, and Gary [Stevens] thought he was going to finish second. Then all of a sudden, he hit him left-handed to see if he had anything extra, and he took off again.

"When I saw that, it was like a win: 'Man, what a horse I've got here.'

"He has so much fight. The thing is, if he can be at the top of the stretch with the contenders, I know he'll just dig deep and find that little extra."

Baffert is so effusive and entertaining that his personality sells the colt as much as the colt's ability. The trainer of Free House, on the other hand, is the soft-spoken Paco Gonzalez. He's a 52-year-old native of Mexico whose only other Triple Crown horse was Mane Minister in 1991 -- the only horse ever to finish third in all three races.

"It doesn't bother me that nobody's paying much attention to my horse," Gonzalez said. "Maybe it's because Bob [Baffert] talks more than I do. I'm just happy that my horse is doing good."

Ron McAnally, the trainer of Hello, doesn't seem to mind that his Irish-bred, who won a Group 1 race last year in Italy, is also overlooked despite his strong third place in the Santa Anita Derby.

Hello wins one race hands down. He is the smallest horse in the Derby. Training his 10th Derby entrant after having never finished better than fourth, McAnally estimates that Hello weighs 850 pounds, about 200 pounds less than his competitors.

"There's not much to him," McAnally says, "but it's all heart."

After racing as a 2-year-old in Europe on turf, he joined McAnally's barn in California. On dirt he's won once and finished third twice. Despite bad racing luck, he possesses the kind of late kick that often wins the Derby.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.