Baffert repeats his 1-2 punch

`Challenge,' `Timber' give trainer another big day at Santa Anita

April 04, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARCADIA, Calif. -- They might as well have run the replay of last year's Santa Anita Derby. Bob Baffert was 1-2 again, and he's off to the Kentucky Derby with another strong hand, another couple of aces.

General Challenge, the horse with two nicknames, drew off to a 3 1/2-length victory yesterday in the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby before 35,023 patrons at Santa Anita Park near Los Angeles. His stablemate Prime Timber, despite a bruised foot, finished second, another 3 1/2 lengths in front of the young phenom Desert Hero.

The clear domination of California's foremost race for 3-year-olds capped a near-unbelievable weekend for Baffert. His two outstanding 3-year-old fillies, Silverbulletday and Excellent Meeting, won major stakes at Keeneland and Oaklawn Park, respectively.

"It makes up for last weekend," Baffert said.

Last weekend Baffert flew back early from Dubai in the Middle East to saddle Straight Man, one of his top Derby prospects, in the Gallery Furniture.com Stakes at Turfway Park. Straight Man finished a dull fourth. And then Baffert watched on TV from Kentucky as Silver Charm, the horse he calls his favorite, staggered home sixth in the Dubai World Cup.

It appeared -- for one brief, desperate moment -- that the wheels could be falling off the Baffert express. Never mind.

He is back on track, barreling toward Churchill Downs with a chance to make history. He could become the first trainer to win three consecutive Kentucky Derbies.

His winners the past two years, Real Quiet in 1998 and Silver Charm in 1997, both finished second in the Santa Anita Derby. If recent history repeats itself the first Saturday in May, Baffert would claim one of racing's most coveted prizes with Prime Timber, the runner-up in this year's Santa Anita Derby.

"He ran the race that Real Quiet ran here last year," Baffert said.

Real Quiet rallied late to finish 2 1/4 lengths behind Baffert's Indian Charlie, who had raced near the lead before surging to the front on the far turn. Real Quiet then captured the Kentucky Derby and Preakness before losing the Belmont -- and the Triple Crown -- by a nose.

Rewind the tape.

Yesterday, General Challenge, the 5-2 third choice, chased High Wire Act and the filly Honest Lady around the first turn and halfway down the backstretch. Galloping steadily under the jockey Gary Stevens, General Challenge edged past Honest Lady on the straightaway. Then, around the far turn, he surged past High Wire Act.

Running powerfully with long fluid strides, General Challenge extended his lead with each hoofs' pounding of the dirt.

After running fifth but never far from the leaders, the 2-1 favorite Prime Timber and his jockey David Flores swung wide around the far turn and gracefully claimed second. The under-raced Desert Hero, the 5-2 second choice (more money was bet on him than General Challenge), captured third.

After the race Baffert revealed that he had nearly scratched Prime Timber. The colt must have stepped on something Friday morning while galloping or walking to and from the track, Baffert said. He returned to the barn with a bruise on the bottom of his left hind foot.

"When I saw him in the stall I wanted to vomit," Baffert said. "He was dead lame in the back."

Baffert soaked Prime Timber's foot, and a blacksmith removed the shoe. Baffert said that helped, possibly meaning that a shoe nail had been bothering him.

When he arrived at the barn yesterday morning, Baffert said, he expected he'd have to scratch Prime Timber. But the colt was fine, Baffert said. So the race was on.

"I think he ran a great race," Baffert said of Prime Timber. "Anytime you run second to a horse like General Challenge and you're that close, you're a good horse. General Challenge is a very good horse."

Stevens, the winning jockey, said that General Challenge benefited from blinkers, devices that limit a horse's peripheral vision. The California-bred gelding focused more on running than he had three weeks ago during a fifth-place finish in the Louisiana Derby, Stevens said.

After that race, the horse's first loss, Stevens and Baffert said that General Challenge hadn't showed up. They began calling him "Rodman" after Dennis Rodman, the Los Angeles Laker who recently left the team briefly.

They had already been calling him "the big paint horse" because of his four white stockings that look as if he stepped into cans of paint.

Baffert said General Challenge and Prime Timber would fly to Louisville on April 13 and begin training for the Kentucky Derby. He said that he would prepare his fillies for the Kentucky Oaks, but that he would leave the door open a crack to run them in the Derby.

"They're all at the top of their game right now," Baffert said. "But a lot can happen between now and then."

Santa Anita Derby

Payoffs:

General Challenge 7.60 3.80 2.80

Prime Timber 3.40 2.40

Desert Hero 2.60

Exacta: $12.10

Quinella: $11.80

Trifecta: $29.70

Time (1 1/8 miles): 23.46, 47.30, 1: 11.46, 1: 36.29, 1: 48.92

Also ran: Charismatic (44-1), Walk That Walk (70-1), Capsized (8-1), Honest Lady (6-1), High Wire Act (11-1).

Pub Date: 4/04/99

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