Race for three-peat over, Baffert takes defeat quietly

May 02, 1999|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The circus was gone. The swirl of minicams, millionaires and celebrities had vanished outside Bob Baffert's barn.

Baffert wasn't there either after his horses ran fourth, fifth and 11th in the Kentucky Derby yesterday, denying him a third straight Derby win.

"Is he coming?" someone asked April Mayberry, the local trainer whose barn Baffert borrows at Churchill Downs.

"Eventually," Mayberry said, smoking a cigarette as she leaned against a wall.

The crowd that had swarmed Baffert all week had been reduced to a small cluster of reporters.

In the aftermath of a stunning Derby win by Charismatic, a 31-1 shot trained by D. Wayne Lukas, Baffert's biggest rival, Baffert was no longer "Bulletproof Bob," the trainer who couldn't lose on the first Saturday in May.

Now he was just another guy with some explaining to do.

How could a no-name such as Charismatic finish 10 places ahead of General Challenge, Baffert's ballyhooed Santa Anita Derby winner?

What happened to Excellent Meeting, the fine filly Baffert had run in the Derby instead of in the Kentucky Oaks the day before?

And what about Prime Timber, the consistent colt who always runs in the money?

"General Challenge had trouble on the first turn," someone said.

Mayberry nodded. "I thought he was going down," she said.

Then no one said anything. The only sound was the crackly blurtings of the backside public address announcer. A car was blocking a truck's path. Could the owner please move it?

Suddenly, a chestnut colt that wasn't wearing a saddlecloth jogged by, trailing a groom that was almost sprinting across the grounds. One camera crew raced after them. Then another.

"There goes your winner," Mayberry said calmly.

Sure enough, it was Charismatic and his groom, heading back to Lukas' barn, where, no doubt, the circus had moved and the celebration was beginning -- the same celebration that unfolded at Baffert's barn after Silver Charm won the Derby in 1997 and Real Quiet won in 1998.

In 1999, there was just the sound of footsteps in the gravel.

Where was Baffert? Where was the foiled three-peater himself?

"I think he's at [a reception]," Mayberry said.

He wasn't at his barn, that's for sure. He wasn't where the questions awaited.

Not that the questions would be that tricky or tough. What had happened was easy enough to figure. Baffert's renowned Derby luck finally had abandoned him. The percentages had caught him.

General Challenge was jolted at the start, cut off and forced to race in a crowd. As feared, he wasn't nimble or mature enough to handle the traffic. Jockey Gary Stevens later called his ride around the track "my worst trip ever in horse racing."

Excellent Meeting, the filly, was outrun to the first turn and pushed to the back of the pack. She was 18th after a half-mile and rallied to finish fifth.

Prime Timber? He was forced to run outside and had no charge left at the end, although he finished fourth.

Baffert's take on it all? He finally phoned the barn almost an hour after the race, checking on his horses and explaining that he wasn't coming to the barn soon. Told that reporters were waiting, as if he didn't know, he agreed to speak to a pool reporter on the phone.

"We don't know how to act [after losing]," he said. "We're sort of lost souls."

His overall impression?

"We just didn't have any luck," he said. "There were just too many horses in the race. Too much traffic. General Challenge had a horrible trip, a horrible trip. Excellent Meeting ran the best of the three. She was dead last [at one point] and coming hard at the end."

Was he disappointed at failing to deliver the first three-peat in Derby history?

"I'm just disappointed we didn't get a chance to run," he said.

For a trainer that owner Mike Pegram calls "the most competitive guy back here [in the barns]," it wasn't a good day. Charismatic's owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis, split their horses between Baffert and Lukas. Baffert won a Derby for them with Silver Charm and could have had Charismatic yesterday, but the Lewises gave the horse to Lukas.


Baffert took the high road, of course. What else could he do after watching his clients win?

"I got a kick out of watching the Lewises," he said. "The best wins are when you don't expect it."

And the worst are when you're expecting to win and don't.

"If you get beat, you get beat," Baffert said. "What are you going to do? You can't win 'em all. You just go on to the next race. Now I don't have to worry about the Triple Crown."

He'll run Prime Timber in the Preakness in two weeks at Pimlico, he said, and send General Challenge and Excellent Meeting back to California. He's still "considering" running his brilliant, Oaks-winning filly, Silverbulletday, in the Preakness. That would be something to see.

He's never lacking for horses these days, never lacking for options and possibilities.

But the race he calls his "addiction" was over, and this time, for the first time, it had ended all wrong. Nothing to cheer for down the stretch. Someone else's moment of glory. No history. A bummer.

And then, a circus picking up and hustling across the grounds, leaving silence in its wake.

Pub Date: 5/02/99

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