Baffert stands up to racing scrutiny

Trainer says success has not changed him

Preakness Stakes

May 18, 2001|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The phone rang in Bob Baffert's pocket, interrupting another of his seemingly endless media interviews. Baffert answered his cell phone.

"Yeah? ... OK."

He put the phone back.

"That was my doctor," he said. "My Valium just came in."

Baffert nervous before a big race? If so, he hides it well. This is Baffert's sixth go-round on the Triple Crown trail, and the white-haired trainer from California still leads in quips and casual manner.

Tomorrow, he will saddle Congaree and Point Given in the 126th Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. He seems far less confident than he did before the Kentucky Derby, when he said his pair had a good chance of running one-two. Congaree finished third, Point Given fifth.

They enter the Preakness second fiddle to Monarchos, commanding winner of the Derby. Baffert makes no excuses for his horses' losing the Derby, and he makes no predictions on where they'll finish in the Preakness.

"Unfortunately, we're going to lose more Derbies than we're going to win," Baffert said yesterday outside the stakes barn at Pimlico. "We just regroup and go to the next game.

"I'm not really looking at any of the other horses. I'm just concentrating on my two. I just hope they run their race. If they do, I don't have anything to worry about."

Despite not marching into Baltimore with the Kentucky Derby winner, as he did in 1997 with Silver Charm and 1998 with Real Quiet, Baffert is still the most recognizable participant in the Preakness. He is perhaps the most recognizable figure in his sport.

"It hasn't changed me," he said. "I'm still the same guy."

Baffert said he ran into an old friend not long ago. The friend asked how celebrity had changed him. Baffert told him: "Hey, I was a [jerk] when you knew me. I'm still a [jerk]."

Mike Pegram coaxed Baffert into the thoroughbred business and remains a close friend. Baffert trained Real Quiet and Silverbulletday and now trains Captain Steve for Pegram. Pegram observed Baffert's rise to stardom and its inevitable pitfalls.

"Bob's always loved the camera," Pegram said. "He's always loved the media, and it shows. But there's a price you pay for that. I don't know anybody who could stand up to the scrutiny as well as Bob has."

Included in that scrutiny were accusations that Baffert used illegal drugs to aid his horses. Such charges are commonplace when an unknown trainer suddenly starts winning at an unusually high rate.

"I think everybody goes through that when they start doing well," Baffert said. "That's just the nature of the game."

But in May last year, a horse of Baffert's that won at Hollywood Park was found to have a tiny amount of morphine in its urine. At a hearing in April before track stewards, Baffert denied administering the drug, which could enhance a horse's performance.

The lawyer for the California Horse Racing Board recommended that Baffert be suspended from training for six months and fined $10,000. The stewards have not yet issued a verdict.

Baffert said the whole thing is a joke. His lawyer argued that the horse could have been contaminated by poppy seeds from hay or even bagels at the barn. And the lawyer argued that the case should be dismissed because a blood sample from the horse was never tested and thrown out in a cost-saving measure.

Baffert has continually denied that he gives his horses illegal drugs. A former assistant, Eoin Harty, backs that up. Harty, a trainer for Godolphin Racing, worked for Baffert for seven years.

"It's ridiculous," Harty said. "The better he did, the more rumors there were. As God is my witness, on the life of my children, we never used anything illegal. At the end of the day, he's probably just a better trainer than the other ones."

Baffert's current assistant, Jim Barnes, said one of the keys to Baffert's success is his eye for picking out young horses.

"He can pick out the best horses of any trainer I've ever worked with," Barnes said.

Said Pegram: "The man's got an art and a talent for what he does. Training horses is not a science. It's an art. You can't write in a book what's in that man's head.

"You never see Bob write anything down. He's got a filing system in his mind second to none. ... He's one hell of a horse trainer. History will prove that out."

Baffert has made such an impact on the sport in just a few years that history is bearing that out. He nearly won the Triple Crown with Silver Charm and Real Quiet.

"People think I started training horses 10 years ago," said Baffert, 48, who grew up on a cattle farm in Arizona. "When I was 12, I was rubbing down horses' legs with alcohol until 10 o'clock at night. I kept wondering why in the world was I doing that. Now I know."

Baffert achieved his early success in thoroughbred racing largely with reasonable horses he had bought at auctions. Now, with richer owners, he is training better-bred and presumably better horses.

That means that Baffert, already at the pinnacle, will likely remain a star for years. And that, Pegram said, is just how Baffert would want it.

"If he was a basketball player, he'd want the ball in the last five seconds," Pegram said. "And if I was on his team, I'd let him have it."

Race facts

What: Second leg of horse racing's Triple Crown

When: Tomorrow, post time approximately 6 p.m.

Where: Pimlico Race Course

Distance: 1 3/16 miles

Purse: $1 million

TV: Chs. 11, 4 (coverage begins at 5 p.m.)

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