Pressure washes off Baffert

On verge of making Derby history today, trainer stifles yawn

May 01, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The Kentucky Derby is one of the most fascinating sporting events in the world because young and developing horses, the rough equivalent of 18-year-olds, strive to do what they have never done.

In a thundering herd of as many as 20 head, they attempt to race farther than they have ever raced -- 1 1/4 miles -- surrounded by a raucous, threatening crowd approaching 150,000. Sometimes, the humans connected with these horses try to do not only what they have never done, but also what never has been done by those before them.

Today, a striking, white-haired, California trainer named Bob Baffert, unknown to the sport four years ago, will attempt to make history in the 125th Derby at Churchill Downs. Baffert, 46, will seek to become the first trainer to win three consecutive runnings of the nation's greatest race.

Five trainers have won two in a row. One was Ben Jones, the leading Derby trainer of all time. He won six in all.

Has Baffert, the loosey-goosey dude in the shades, succumbed to the pressure?

"Ben Jones?" he quipped. "He a golfer?"

Despite having become the most recognizable figure in horse racing -- and having to deal with the suffocating attention -- Baffert has approached the Derby as if it were a ride at Disneyland.

"I'm actually more relaxed this year than I ever have been," Baffert said. "This is my mini-vacation. To me, I'm obsessed with getting here with good horses. Now that I'm here, let's have a good time.

"When I lead these horses over there, they're going to be ready. If we win it, great. If they get outrun, I don't really worry about stuff like that. I'm not going to put that added pressure on myself. "Pressure? The only pressure I have is I'm supposed to win the Oaks. That's the race I'd better win."

He did. The sensational Silverbulletday, crushed to 1-9 by the bettors, prevailed by two lengths yesterday in the Kentucky Oaks for her 10th victory in 11 races.

That presents Baffert the opportunity to achieve another rare feat. He could become the first trainer since Jones (remember Ben?) in 1952 to pull off an Oaks-Derby double. (And Baffert could accomplish the unthinkable: Do it with two fillies.)

If Baffert had chosen to run Silverbulletday in the Derby, she probably would have been favored.

"I'm the only guy," Baffert joked, "who ran the Kentucky Derby favorite in the Oaks."

Still, the Derby favorite will come from Baffert's barn. The entry of Excellent Meeting, the filly, and General Challenge, the gelding, will likely be favored. If it is not, the colt Prime Timber will.

Baffert conditions all three -- an embarrassment of riches to be sure. And Silver Charm and Real Quiet, his past two Derby winners, remain in training.

Amazingly, Baffert could be on the verge of his fourth straight Derby victory if not for the nose of Grindstone, which beat Cavonnier to the wire in 1996. That was Baffert's first Derby. A former quarter-horse trainer, he slipped into Louisville hardly noticed, and slinked out nearly heartbroken.

"When I came in here with Cavonnier, I had to win it, and I just got beat a nose," Baffert said. "I thought I'd never have another chance to come back.

"I've just won two years in a row by coincidence. It's hard to explain to people. I'm here now because I had the money behind me. Those other two? Coincidence."

A crackerjack judge of potential, Baffert won his first Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm, whom he picked out as a 2-year-old for $85,000. He won last year with Real Quiet, a yearling he snatched for $17,000.

His success attracted wealthier owners, who provided him more expensive, better-bred horses with even greater potential. When Baffert lost the Derby with Cavonnier, he trained about 30 horses. Now he trains nearly 100.

On behalf of Oregon resident Aaron Jones, Baffert purchased Prime Timber last year for $375,000. The owners of one of the nation's largest lumber companies, Jones had sought out Baffert after having little luck with other trainers.

"I noticed that the 2-year-olds he started with wound up as 3-year-olds and wound up as Derby winners," Jones said. "I said, `God, that guy's doing great.' I think I'd like to do some business with him."

Prime Timber enters the Derby the model of consistency. He has finished first or second in all six races. In his last start, the Santa Anita Derby, he finished second despite hurting from a bruised foot and losing a shoe around the first turn.

Afterward, Baffert joked that Prime Timber would surely win the Derby. Silver Charm and Real Quiet also finished second at Santa Anita.

Baffert's other two Derby horses, Excellent Meeting and General Challenge, were products of Betty and John Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm. Based in California, Golden Eagle is the only farm to win three Eclipse awards as North America's outstanding breeder.

Excellent Meeting, the filly, has never finished worse than third. She has never raced against the males but Baffert said he believes she can handle the pressure.

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