Spoiling to race with the big boys?

Belmont Stakes: Silverbulletday has the best record of any horse in training and will test her speed against males for the first time.

June 02, 1999|By TOM KEYSER | TOM KEYSER,SUN STAFF

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The pressure's off.

Bob Baffert and his buddy, Mike Pegram, are flying to the Big Apple this year to have a good time, participate in a great and perhaps historic race and, as Pegram said yesterday, "get a down payment on that $5 million we left last year."

That $5 million was the Visa bonus for a Triple Crown winner. Pegram's Real Quiet just missed last year, losing the Belmont by a heart-crushing nose after winning the Kentucky Derby and Preakness.

This year it's Charismatic pursuing the Triple Crown and his owners, Beverly and Bob Lewis, eyeing the bonus. But Pegram's headed back with the most intriguing horse in the race and a potential Triple Crown spoiler, his sensational filly Silverbulletday. Yesterday, in her final Belmont tuneup, she breezed five furlongs (five-eighths of a mile) in 59 seconds at Churchill Downs. That was faster than any of the 41 horses here who worked that distance.

One was Charismatic. His 1 minute, 2/5 seconds couldn't match the filly, but it was quick for him. His trainer, D. Wayne Lukas, doesn't work horses fast. Baffert, who trains Silverbulletday, does.

"Look at that [filly] go!" Baffert hollered as Silverbulletday roared down the Churchill Downs homestretch. "Doesn't she move beautiful? If I was a horse, I'd want to move just like her."

"You ain't as pretty as her," said Pegram, a smile stretched across his tanned face.

"She picked a good time to peak," Baffert said. "She's better right now than she's ever been."

Silverbulletday sports the best record of any horse in training: 11 wins in 12 starts. Except for her 11-length maiden victory last June at Churchill Downs, every win has come in a graded stakes. Those are supposedly the toughest races.

She is an average-size filly with outstanding athleticism, agility and tremendous speed and acceleration who has proved everything running against her own gender in distances up to a mile and an eighth.

She won the $1 million Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and last year's Eclipse Award as outstanding 2-year-old filly. She has reeled off eight victories in a row, including the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs and the Black-Eyed Susan Stakes at Pimlico.

But all her races have come against fillies. Her trainer and her owner think she might be almost freakish, so good that she could break the gender barriers.

Baffert and Pegram toyed with the idea of running her in the Kentucky Derby, but nixed the idea because of the large field. They entered her in the Preakness, but scratched because of her outside post position.

Both times they had a fallback plan, a race for 3-year-old fillies the day before (Kentucky Oaks and Black-Eyed Susan). There's even a filly race the day before the Belmont, the one-mile Acorn Stakes.

But this time, despite some Baffert misgivings about the Belmont's 1 1/2 miles, they've decided to throw the filly into the deep end -- without a life preserver. They said they will not cross-enter her in the Acorn.

Pegram, who has 21 McDonald's in his home state of Washington, is an unconventional owner who prefers jeans to suits, beer to champagne, and irreverent names for his horses. He named the filly after his favorite beer, Coors Light, "The Silver Bullet."

"I've said all along I had no desire to go to the Belmont at all," said Pegram, explaining how he and Baffert altered course after the Black-Eyed Susan and the Preakness. "When things settled down, we said, `Where are we going to run her next?' You start asking yourself, `What are our options?' And then one of the options was the Belmont, and you ask, `Why not?' "

One "why not" was the distance. Before the Derby, which is 1 1/4 miles, Baffert said he didn't think Silverbulletday wanted to race even that far.

"And that was my first reaction," Pegram said. "But then you stop and think about it. Let's face it, in the Belmont you gallop a mile and an eighth, and you only really run that last three-eighths.

"The worse that can happen is she doesn't want to go that far. And if that's the case, I'm sure Bailey will take care of her."

Jerry Bailey will ride Silverbulletday. He has ridden her only once, in the Ashland Stakes on April 3 at Keeneland. She won by seven lengths, but that race was only 1 1/16 miles over a muddy track. Silverbulletday has never raced farther than 1 1/8 miles.

Still, Baffert said, he talked to Bailey recently, and "he's the one who told me I wasn't reaching. He said, `She can handle it.'

"If I didn't think she had a shot to win it, I wouldn't even mess with it," Baffert said. "She has a very legitimate shot. The question in all our minds is the mile and a half. Can she handle it? Can she handle boys?

"You never know until you lead them over there. But I'll tell you one thing, she's going to have to lay her body on the line. This filly has never been tested like she's going to be tested in the Belmont. This is her chance to show her greatness."

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