ARCADIA, Calif. -- Out here, nobody cares whether Joe De Francis has been a good steward of Maryland racing.
The pressing issues are General Challenge's blinkers, Desert Hero's inexperience, Capsized's quarter crack, Honest Lady's gender and Prime Timber's resilience.
As racing fans focus on perhaps the most relevant race leading to the Kentucky Derby, the political squabbles and management concerns that mar Maryland racing can finally be set aside -- at least for a few days.
If recent history repeats, the winner of the Kentucky Derby in 30 days at Churchill Downs will compete Saturday in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby here at picturesque Santa Anita Park.
Real Quiet and Silver Charm, winners of the past two Kentucky Derbies (the past two Preaknesses as well), raced in the Santa Anita Derby. They finished second, Real Quiet to Indian Charlie last year, Silver Charm to Free House the year before.
Now Bob Baffert -- trainer of Real Quiet, Indian Charlie and Silver Charm (not to mention Cavonnier, who won the Santa Anita Derby three years ago only to lose the Kentucky Derby by a nose) -- is preparing to saddle probable favorite Prime Timber and top contender General Challenge in this year's version of the West's premier race for 3-year-olds.
"I knew I was going to win it last year," Baffert said yesterday at his barn at Santa Anita Park. "I just didn't know which horse would win it. This year I feel pretty confident. Both of them are training great. But in this business you never know."
Baffert has reason to be wary. Last weekend he suffered two of his toughest defeats when Silver Charm finished sixth in the Dubai World Cup and Straight Man, one of his favorite 3-year-olds, staggered home fourth in the Gallery Furniture.com Stakes, formerly the Jim Beam Stakes.
Then Tuesday, here on the grandstand apron, he and the agent for jockey Chris McCarron argued over Baffert's replacing McCarron on General Challenge. According to the Daily Racing Form, witnesses said Baffert pushed the agent.
Baffert denied that yesterday, but he acknowledged getting into the argument.
"People don't understand that when Silver Charm gets beat, I go into a deep depression for a week," Baffert said. "It can't get any worse than it did last weekend."
Baffert hasn't experienced many setbacks since surging into national prominence with Cavonnier, an obscure California-bred gelding. But if one horse in his barn can rescue his sagging spirits, that horse is most likely Prime Timber.
A son of Sultry Song, Prime Timber has finished first or second in all five races. But his last race, the San Felipe Stakes here three weeks ago, caught everyone's eye.
Wearing blinkers for the first time (blinkers limit peripheral vision so a horse focuses on running), Prime Timber exploded in the stretch for a two-length victory. Despite his immense talent, it was the first time he had flashed it. Baffert credited the blinkers.
Since they worked so well for Prime Timber, Baffert has decided to fit General Challenge with them Saturday. Asked whether he hopes blinkers do for one what they did for the other, Baffert said firmly: "They will."
They have in the morning. Wearing blinkers, General Challenge has recorded two straight bullet works.
But the approaching task is formidable. The Baffert pair must repel the challenges of Desert Hero, a Sea Hero colt who has raced only twice but stunned observers with a trouble-filled victory Feb. 28 in the San Rafael Stakes (defeating Prime Timber); Capsized, a late-running son of Summer Squall trained by Maryland native Lisa Lewis; and Honest Lady, a daughter of Seattle Slew described by her trainer, Bobby Frankel, as a major threat to the boys.
But Capsized will race with a patch on a small crack in his hoof. And Honest Lady will seek to become the first female winner of the Santa Anita Derby since Winning Colors in 1988. Winning Colors went on to win the Kentucky Derby.
Can Honest Lady do it? Can Capsized overcome the crack? Those are the kind of questions -- not the management of racetracks, not the political wins and losses -- that make this sport an enduring challenge, a never-ending fascination.
NOTE: Baffert said Real Quiet's next start will be May 8 in the Pimlico Special. He withdrew last year's Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner from Saturday's Oaklawn Handicap because he wasn't happy with the weights.
"He ran the best race of his life there," Baffert said, referring to Real Quiet's Preakness triumph at Pimlico. "So why not?"
Pub Date: 4/01/99