Cup's music sweet to maestro Baffert

Horse racing: Amid the fanfare of racing's richest event, the Gulfstream Park stage is set for trainer Bob Baffert, who could walk away with victories in six of eight races tomorrow.

November 05, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

HALLANDALE, Fla. -- Breeders' Cup week is a symphony of the most talented, most beautiful and most valuable racehorses in the world. The music soars each time a grand thoroughbred such as Daylami, Forestry or Lemon Drop Kid prances to and from the track.

Yet with all these equine stars and all their accomplished human connections, the clear leader of the symphony this week at Gulfstream Park is the once-obscure, now-ubiquitous trainer, Bob Baffert. Everywhere he goes there's a TV crew, a group of reporters, a visitor with a camera, all hoping to bask in the beam of his wit and charm.

Obviously, this is Baffert's moment. He became the first trainer to win the Kentucky Derby and Preakness two years in a row (1997 with Silver Charm, 1998 with Real Quiet). Now he has blown into South Florida with the strongest hand of any trainer in the history of the Breeders' Cup. His horses could win six of the eight races tomorrow at this glistening track between Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

On top of that, his autobiography has just been released: "Baffert, Dirt Road to the Derby." As chronicled by the turf writer Steve Haskin, Baffert's life is the story of a wise-cracking former quarter-horse jockey and trainer who switched to thoroughbreds, craved the spotlight and coveted success.

Toward the end of the book, Baffert's wife, Sherry, the mother of his four children -- the woman from whom Baffert is now separated -- points out that he once had a life outside the horses. She poses the question:

"Now, it's seven days a week, and stress, and traveling all the time. He never takes a day off. I ask him, `Are you happy? You've reached the top. You've achieved what you wanted. Has it made you happy?' "

The book leaves the question unanswered. So yesterday, as the seldom-introspective Baffert sat in a director's chair outside his star-studded barn, he was asked to consider the question.

"Am I happy?" he said, seeming a little taken aback. "Yeah, I'm happy. What makes me happy is being able to do something that I love. That's why I have so much fun doing it. I can be myself.

"I think what happened was for a while there I started believing my own crap. It's easy for this stuff to go to your head. Now, I am just feeling very fortunate. What I have become is because of the people around me. I've got the big bucks behind me now. I'm not the best horse trainer on the grounds. I'm the most fortunate horse trainer."

Baffert's buddy, Mike Pegram, the owner who orchestrated Baffert's switch from quarter horses to thoroughbreds a decade ago, sat on the edge of a manure pit ("my office," he said) outside Baffert's barn. He said that he could answer that question, too.

"It's made him happy because this is who Bob Baffert is," Pegram said. "Bobby has dreamed his whole life about being around good horses. He's got this God-given gift. It's not a job to Bobby. This is a passion."

With that, the reporters squeezed in closer around Baffert and Pegram, who owns Silverbulletday and Captain Steve, and the questions returned to Baffert's entrants. The trainer said he has them sitting on ready for what will be the toughest challenge of their careers. He sat patiently and ran down the list, one by one.

Silverbulletday (Distaff), most accomplished horse in the Breeders' Cup with 14 wins in 17 tries: "I don't worry about her. She's going to give me everything she's got every time she runs. She's a star. She's a pet. She's already done so much for us."

Chilukki (Juvenile Fillies), 2-year-old filly undefeated in six races but competing at 1 1/16 miles for the first time: "If she gets beat I'm going to be so sad, because she's the sweetest little horse I've ever been around. If she can't get the distance this week, she'll never get it. I've got her honed."

Tuzla (Mile), Baffert's lone entrant in a turf race, his longest shot at 15-1: "What can I tell you? The course is going to be soft, and she likes it firm. Maybe she needs cleats."

Forestry (Sprint), brilliantly bred 3-year-old son of Storm Cat who has won seven and never been worse than third in 10 races: Baffert said he hasn't run him since August because sprinters need time off between races. (Added Pegram, a two-fisted gambler: "They will not beat Forestry in the Sprint.")

Captain Steve (Juvenile), promising 2-year-old colt bred for distance: "He's developed an attitude. He thinks he's Mister Macho, biting everybody, kicking. The talent is there, but he hasn't mastered the game yet."

Forest Camp (Juvenile), impressive winner in two of his three races: "He's the fastest 2-year-old I've ever trained."

General Challenge (Classic), stunningly fast 3-year-old who's won six races, but none outside his home state of California: "I've got this horse with all this talent, but getting it out of him is so frustrating. He's done things in the morning I've never had horses do. He doesn't know how fast he is. He's still learning."

River Keen (Classic), 7-year-old former claimer battling cracks in his left-rear hoof: "I hate to get too excited about him, because his foot is like a volcano. It can explode any time. But he is for real."

And that, for Baffert, perhaps set a record for answering questions seriously, not digressing, not diverting, not deflecting probes with barbs and quips. "Has anybody read the book?" he asked, grinning wickedly, finally beginning his transformation back into irreverence and buffoonery.

If anybody had, they would have read Baffert, in his own words: "The reason I act like a kid, and people don't take me seriously, is because I still am a kid. To me, I'm an 18-year-old in a 46-year-old's body."

Breeders' Cup

What: Breeders' Cup; eight races worth $13 million

Where: Gulfstream Park, Hallandale, Fla.

When: Tomorrow

TV: 1 to 5: 30 p.m., Ch. 11

Richest race: $4 million Classic

Classic favorite: Behrens

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