Baffert's Charmed life back Colt on roll again after rocky period

November 03, 1998|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The scene was strikingly familiar: Bob Baffert surrounded by reporters outside Barn 33 at Churchill Downs, days before one of the world's major races.

For the past three years, Baffert has held court here before the Kentucky Derby -- with Cavonnier in 1996, Silver Charm in 1997 and Real Quiet last spring.

His success rate has been remarkable. Cavonnier lost by a nose. Silver Charm and Real Quiet won and then captured the Preakness, only to lose the Triple Crown at Belmont Park.

Yesterday, Baffert was back with Silver Charm, five days before perhaps the world's biggest race, the Breeders' Cup Classic. For racing fans in the East, it seems as if both have been away a long time. They've gotten lost in the hoopla over Skip Away, who race after race up and down the East Coast has established himself as the best horse this year and one of the greats of all time.

On Saturday, before retiring to stud, Skip Away will race one last time against one of the deepest fields ever assembled for a horse race. Ten horses are expected to run in the Classic, the last of seven Breeders' Cup races at Churchill Downs, but at the head of the pack, sharing the spotlight, will be Silver Charm.

"I'm just glad we've got a shot at Skip Away before he retires," Baffert said. "We're coming up to the race great. I think Silver Charm is better now than he was in Dubai. He's the best he's ever been."

After winning last year's Eclipse Award for outstanding 3-year-old male, Silver Charm stormed into 1998 by winning two Grade II stakes in California and then the $4 million Dubai World Cup in the Middle East. He returned to the United States on course for Horse of the Year, this country's most coveted award for thoroughbreds.

Baffert's plan was to give Silver Charm a couple of months off and then a couple of races leading up to the year-end goal, the Breeders' Cup Classic. But as Skip Away reeled off win after win and his trainer, Sonny Hine, kept accusing Baffert and Silver Charm of ducking him, Baffert made a mistake.

"I got wrapped up in all the Skip Away stuff," Baffert said. "It looked like we were losing our grip on Horse of the Year. I got in a hurry. I changed my game plan."

He entered Silver Charm in the Grade II Stephen Foster Handicap on June 13 at Churchill Downs. Baffert believed it'd be an easy race. But Silver Charm conceded 14 pounds to Awesome Again, and Awesome Again blew by a tiring Silver Charm in the homestretch.

Baffert shipped Silver Charm to California, but the horse got sick. Baffert pushed him into the 1 1/16-mile San Diego Handicap, a Grade III stakes July 25 at Del Mar. Silver Charm, potential Horse of the Year, crumbled.

He finished fifth -- and last -- 27 lengths behind. That was the only time in 17 races that Silver Charm has not finished first or second. Baffert blamed himself.

"I did a bad training job," he said. "The poor guy, he was fit to go about five furlongs. After that, I said, 'Forget about this Horse of the Year stuff. Let's focus on getting him back to the Breeders' Cup.' "

The next race was crucial, the Grade III Kentucky Cup Classic Handicap on Sept. 26 at Turfway Park. If Silver Charm ran as poorly as he had at Del Mar, Baffert said, he and Bob Lewis, the colt's owner, might have retired him.

Silver Charm ran admirably in the 1 1/8 -mile race, finishing in a dead heat with Wild Rush. Then, on Oct. 17, Silver Charm pummeled Free House in the Grade II, 1 1/8 -mile Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap at Santa Anita Park.

"Ever since Turfway Park [and the dead-heat win], I've been in a very good mood," Baffert said. "His dapples are back. His hair coat looks great. He hasn't had that look since he came back from Dubai."

And after Silver Charm's five-furlong breeze yesterday in 59 3/5 seconds -- his final work before the Classic -- Baffert beamed amid the reporters outside Barn 33.

He said that while monitoring the workout from the Churchill Downs' grandstand, he spoke by walkie-talkie with his exercise rider, Dana Barnes, who wore her radio on her belt. Baffert told her to rein in the big gray.

"He wanted to go much faster," Baffert said. "I had to shut him down after that first eighth mile or he'd have gone in 58 [seconds]. He looked great.

"I'm very relieved, very excited. I think on Saturday he's going to run the way he should run. I'm confident he's going to run big."

Breeders' Cup

What: Seven races, worth at least $12 million

Where: Churchill Downs, Louisville, Ky.

When: Saturday

TV: Ch. 11, 1 p.m.

The races: $1 million Juvenile, 1: 25 p.m.; $1 million Juvenile Fillies, 2 p.m.; $1 million Sprint, 2: 35 p.m.; $1 million Mile, 3: 10 p.m.; $2 million Distaff, 3: 34 p.m.; $2 million Turf, 4: 25 p.m.; $4 million Classic, 5: 05 p.m.

Probable favorites: In the Juvenile, The Groom Is Red and the three-horse entry of Cat Thief, Mountain Range and Tactical Cat; in the Juvenile Fillies, Silverbulletday and Excellent Meeting; in the Sprint, Affirmed Success and Wild Rush; in the Mile, Desert Prince; in the Distaff, Banshee Breeze; in the Turf, the entry of Royal Anthem and Military; in the Classic, Skip Away and Silver Charm.

Pub Date: 11/03/98

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