For Baffert, good times keep rolling

April 29, 1999|By John Eisenberg

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- He was one guy with one horse and some one-liners when he first came to the Kentucky Derby three years ago. Bob Baffert was an unknown, a little-guy trainer, as hard as that is to fathom now.

Three years later, after losing the Derby by a nose in 1996 and winning it the past two years, he's Baffert Inc.

He's stabled in Barn 33 at Churchill Downs with 15 stablehands, two assistants and 31 well-bred horses, including the past two Derby winners and four of the country's top 3-year-olds. There's an All-Star Game every morning when his troops work out.

As he prepares three top contenders -- General Challenge, Prime Timber and Excellent Meeting -- for Saturday's Derby, attempting to become the first trainer to win the race three years in a row, a loud buzz of reporters, celebrities and millionaire owners swarms his barn every day.

"Did I ever think I'd get to this point? Are you kidding?" Baffert, 46, said recently. "I had four quarter horses and a goat when I started out at Los Alamitos [in California] in 1976. And the goat was worth more than the horses."

He's the same as he ever was in that way, funny and approachable with his California, hipster-dad persona.

"My brother and father didn't come [to Louisville] this year," he said. "They couldn't get sponsors."

Ba-dum.

"I'm not worried about [making] history," he said. "I'm just worried about coming up with new [comedy] material."

Ba-dum-bum.

But try as he might to insist nothing has changed, his life and career have changed forever.

Gone are the bargain horses he won with before becoming racing's hottest trainer. He now has high-end clients who breed to top stallions and buy the best horses available, guaranteeing Baffert an annual supply of Derby contenders -- as long as he continues to produce.

That's re-cast him as a heavy, perennial favorite, a new role for a lifelong class clown. He's under constant scrutiny from the press and public, causing tension where once there was none. He recently issued his sharpest complaints about the press, which has been overwhelmingly laudatory with a few exceptions.

"People expect me to win now," he said almost sadly. "I can't sneak up on anyone anymore."

To those familiar with the rise-and-fall cycle so prevalent in sports today, Baffert would seem a likely candidate for a harsh return to earth. It's hard enough to win the Derby once, much less every year. The odds are against him.

Yet Baffert's entry this year might be the most formidable of his Derby career, quite a statement given his back-to-back wins.

"I feel every bit as good now as I did at this point last year and the year before," he said. "I know what it takes to win this race. And I'm coming in with three really good chances to win."

His best chance, it seems, is General Challenge, a powerful, chestnut gelding who has won four of five starts, including the Santa Anita Derby in a rout.

Then there's Prime Timber, a bay colt who has never finished worse than second in six starts against quality opposition.

That's enough for any other trainer, but Baffert added to his hand yesterday with his last-minute decision to enter Excellent Meeting, a filly who has won seven of 11 starts, including four in a row.

"She's good enough to win the Derby," Baffert said. "We're talking about a great filly."

She's in because Baffert is worried about General Challenge's nervous temperament and bulky build, which can work against a horse in a 20-horse race in front of 140,000 fans. Excellent Meeting's owner, John Mabee, also owns General Challenge and wanted the filly to run in tomorrow's Kentucky Oaks, but Baffert convinced Mabee to go in the Derby.

"I want [Mabee] to win a Derby," Baffert said. "Two shots is better than one."

Baffert had so many shots this year it's almost unfair. He trained Exploit, considered a Derby favorite until suffering an injury, He had Worldly Manner until an Arab sheik bought the colt as a 2-year-old. Throw in Silverbulletday, the favorite in the Oaks, and that's six top 3-year-olds Baffert has touched.

If he keeps that pace up, he could dominate the Derby as no other trainer has before.

"I'm just doing what I've always done, getting my horses in great shape and using my instincts to enter them in the right races," he said. "That's it. That's all."

He doesn't pass himself off as an early-rising workaholic who spends mornings fretting over jogs and washing his stock. Asked how his Derby entrants looked after working out yesterday, he paused and said, "Their heads looked nice, I don't know."

Meaning he hadn't really paid attention.

That part, he leaves up to his stablehands.

His part is making the big decisions, juggling his owners' wishes, selling himself through the press and keeping his amazing roll going.

"I want to win [Saturday], but not because it'd be three in a row," he said. "Maybe I'll care about that one day when I'm older, but not now. I just want to win it, period. This race gets in your blood, and once you win it, you don't want to stop."

Pub Date: 4/29/99

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