Baffert primed for Derby time

Win at Santa Anita could make `Timber' the Derby favorite

April 03, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Chugging toward Churchill Downs seeking to become the first trainer to win three consecutive Kentucky Derbies, Bob Baffert temporarily lost his way.

Two of his top prospects, Straight Man and General Challenge, lost their last races -- Straight Man in Kentucky and General Challenge in Louisiana. And Exploit, another main contender, was retired because of injury.

But today, back home at Santa Anita Park, Baffert expects to recharge his Derby express. He will saddle the probable favorite, Prime Timber, and the possibly rejuvenated General Challenge in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby, California's 1 1/8-mile springboard to the Kentucky Derby.

"The last prep race is the most impor tant," Baffert said. "This is where they start coming around. This is when you find out if you've got a Derby horse or not."

Baffert said he believes he has at least those two, plus perhaps his fillies, Excellent Meeting and Silverbulletday. Excellent Meeting easily won the Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park, and Silverbulletday competes today in the Ashland Stakes at Keeneland.

Those races involve only fillies, and Baffert said he prefers keeping his female pair running against their equine sisters. He said he's pointing both to the Kentucky Oaks on April 30, the day before the Kentucky Derby.

"Maybe I'll enter them in both races," Baffert said. "You've got to leave your options open. A lot can happen between now and then."

What can happen, Baffert said, is even more horses emerging as threats to his recent Derby domination.

"I think this is the toughest crop of 3-year-olds I've seen the past few years," he said. "There's a lot of parity. It's going to be hard to come up with a clear-cut favorite for the Derby."

Never worse than second in five starts, Prime Timber could claim the role of Derby favorite by winning the Santa Anita Derby. But Baffert said he fears the colt might "bounce," or regress, after running the best race of his short career three weeks ago in the San Felipe Stakes.

And Vicar, winner of the Fountain of Youth Stakes and Florida Derby, could earn the role next weekend by dominating the Blue Grass Stakes.

Behind those two, the line for auditions is long. Baffert's General Challenge could wind up favored the first Saturday in May with an overpowering victory today over his stablemate, Prime Timber, and six others.

A California-bred gelding (two points against right there), General Challenge won his first three races in his home state before sputtering March 14 in the Louisiana Derby. After reacting nervously to his first plane trip and then lunging awkwardly at the start, he finished fifth as the 4-5 favorite.

Baffert has since fitted him with blinkers, hoping the limited visibility will focus his attention. That has helped during morning workouts, and it could help this afternoon.

Despite Baffert's promising pair, the morning-line favorite is the inexperienced but supremely talented Desert Hero. He has raced twice and won both.

After winning his first start in early February, he tackled a Grade II field Feb. 28 in the San Rafael Stakes -- and triumphed by a neck over Prime Timber, Capsized and Honest Lady, three of today's opponents. And then, his owner Prince Ahmed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia fired the trainer, Wally Dollase, and transferred the colt to Richard Mandella.

"I thought it was an awesome display of his talent," Mandella said of Desert Hero's effort in the one-mile San Rafael. "That's why his owners and I have Derby fever."

Lest their fever run too hot, let them recall that only Apollo in 1882 won the Kentucky Derby without racing as a 2-year-old. (As for the Santa Anita Derby, only one horse in its 61 runnings has won without racing at 2.)

Another entrant in the Santa Anita Derby faces long odds. Honest Lady seeks to become the fourth filly -- and first since Winning Colors in 1988 -- to win this race. (Only three fillies have triumphed in 124 renewals of the Kentucky Derby.)

Asked whether he, too, had caught Kentucky Derby fever, the filly's trainer, Bobby Frankel, said: "Oh, obviously. There's only one Derby, and I don't want to be sorry that I wasn't there. I might be pushing her a little bit."

He said she'd have to win the Santa Anita Derby, or have a good excuse for not winning, before he would run her in the Kentucky Derby. Her fifth-place finish, beaten a mere length by the males in the San Rafael, proved she can hold her own in mixed company.

For some reason, Frankel said, handicappers have forgotten Honest Lady but jumped back on General Challenge's bandwagon despite his dismal performance in New Orleans.

"My filly got beat a length, and they dropped her off a building," Frankel said. "General Challenge, they're still talking about him."

Santa Anita Derby field

What: Santa Anita Derby; Grade I, $750,000 race at Santa Anita park

When: Today, post time 5: 40 p.m.

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Pos., Horse ---------- Trainer ----------------- Jockey ------------------- Odds

1 Honest Lady ------- Bobby Frankel ------ Kent Desormeaux --- 4-1

2 Prime Timber ------ Bob Baffert ----------- David Flores ----------- 7-2

3 Desert Hero -------- Richard Mandella - Corey Nakatani ------- 5-2

4 Capsized ------------ Lisa Lewis ------------ Alex Solis --------------- 8-1

5 Walk That Walk --- M. Whittingham ---- Chris Antley ------------- 30-1

6 High Wire Act ------- John Shirreffs ------ Chris McCarron ------- 8-1

7 Gen. Challenge ---- Bob Baffert ---------- Gary Stevens --------- 3-1

8 Charismatic ---------- D. Wayne Lukas -- Laffit Pincay Jr. ------- 15-1

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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