Baffert may not fire `Bullet,' but he's still right on target

May 13, 1999|By John Eisenberg

First, Bob Baffert's driver lost their car in the parking lot at BWI yesterday morning.

Then, Baffert took a cab to Pimlico, paid the fare and left a brand new jacket lying on the back seat.

The signs were there early, in other words, before a Preakness post position draw that proved so unlucky and disappointing for Baffert last night.

"Somebody's trying to tell us not to run," Baffert said after his star filly, Silverbulletday, ended up with the No. 14 post in a 14-horse field and thus became a doubtful participant.

Baffert got his jacket back, a minor miracle for anyone who ever lost anything in a cab, but he'd gladly trade that stroke of luck for a better post for Silverbulletday. Alas, he can't.

His other filly, Excellent Meeting, ended up with the No. 7 post, a perfect spot, so she's set to run Saturday and try to become the first filly to win the Preakness since Nellie Morse in 1924.

But Silverbulletday is the one everyone wanted to see in the race, pitting her 10-of-11 lifetime record against the boys.

Now, she's probably going to run in Baffert's fallback race, the Black-Eyed Susan for fillies tomorrow.

Too bad.

Just the idea of her running in the Preakness added a fresh, sharp edge to the race -- a jolt of electricity, if you will, which the Preakness surely needed after last year's power outage.

But a decision to scratch her at this point, when everyone is so eager to see her run, probably takes more guts than a decision to run her.

Bully for Baffert for putting the horse's best interests ahead of his or anyone else's agenda.

Yes, it's a cautious move, but too many trainers don't err on the side of caution in such circumstances. They should. It's the right example to set.

"These [star] fillies come around very rarely," Baffert said. "I have to be really careful what I do with her. Fans love her. She's a big star right now. I have to take care of her."

He left himself an out, saying he would discuss the decision last night with Silverbulletday's owner, Mike Pegram. Their temptation is great. Both acknowledge they'd rather run her Saturday.

"There's no doubt," Pegram said earlier yesterday, standing outside the stakes barn at Pimlico before the post position draw. "She's done everything we've asked her to do. She deserves the shot."

But Baffert said all along he'd "let fate make the decision," referring to the post position draw, and if that was fate speaking last night at ESPN Zone, its message was clear:

Bad idea, guys.

Baffert had joked that we'd know it was a bad post if he clutched his stomach and doubled over in pain when the number was pulled, and sure enough, he pretended to do just that when Silverbulletday's name was called. He did everything but stick his finger down his throat.

You could argue that it's a cop-out; that post positions aren't nearly as important in the Preakness as they are in the more crowded Kentucky Derby; that he should just lighten up, send Silverbulletday in the Preakness and see what happens.

She was installed at 7-2 odds on the morning line, for crying out loud, even with the bad post and the fact that she's never raced this far before.

But the reality is that no horse has ever won the Preakness from the No. 14 hole.

And no filly has won the race since 1924.

Asking a filly to take on that kind of history, when only two fillies have even entered the Preakness since 1939, is asking a lot.

"This is the toughest of the three [Triple Crown] races," trainer D. Wayne Lukas said yesterday.

The toughest in a hard-charging, elbows-out way. Why do you think so few fillies have even run?

"But Bob's will be very tough," Lukas said before the draw. "Both are real quality."

Now, only one will run, it seems.

Baffert relies heavily on his instincts, his gut feelings about big decisions, and his gut feeling on this one obviously was that he'd run Silverbulletday only if the draw didn't leave her with a lot to overcome -- and it did.

Baffert said he'd recently watched a tape of Thunder Gulch finishing third in the Preakness in 1995 after starting from the far-outside post in an 11-horse field. The colt had to work extra hard just to stay in contention, Baffert said, and had little left for the stretch run.

"We'd have to use her [up] coming from the outside," Baffert said.

Maybe she could overcome it. Everyone would love to see her try. As Pegram said yesterday when asked about her quality, "I wouldn't trade places with anyone."

But he would, of course. He'd trade places with anyone who drew a decent post yesterday. He'd trade places, run Silverbulletday in the Preakness and, like the rest of the racing world, stand back for the show.

That it's probably not going to happen now is a shame.

But let's hear it for the people taking great care with a great horse.

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