With 3 contenders, Baffert back in the saddle

May 04, 2006|By JOHN EISENBERG

LOUISVILLE, KY. — Louisville, Ky.-- --As Bob Baffert wrapped up an interview session by his barn yesterday at Churchill Downs, an onlooker congratulated him for giving interesting answers to the sizable media horde.

"Well," Baffert said, "I had three years of good material saved up."

From 2003 to 2005, Baffert was invisible at the Kentucky Derby. The silver-haired trainer, a three-time Derby winner, was relegated to running long-odds horses with no chance, or, in 2004, no horse at all.

But just when it seemed Baffert, 53, was ready to give way to a new generation of trainers, he came up with an enviable hand of legitimate Derby contenders this year - not one, not two, but three horses capable of winning Saturday.

"We're armed and dangerous," he said yesterday.

His hand includes horses that won two premier Derby prep races last month: Sinister Minister, a speedster that ran away with the Blue Grass Stakes, and Bob and John, winner of the Wood Memorial. And his best shot might be Point Determined, a Maryland-bred with the late-charging running style that wins Derbys.

Between tending to his horses and arranging for photographers to snap pictures of his 16-month-old son on horseback, Baffert was too busy to speak to reporters until relatively late yesterday morning. Then he smiled as he surveyed the crowd that gathered in bright sunshine.

"I think there are more [reporters] here today than there were in all of the last three years combined," he said.

It was exactly a decade ago that he first appeared at the Derby as a glib former quarterhorse trainer who exuded cool with his everpresent sunglasses and West Coast roots. His horse, Cavonnier, led down the stretch, only to lose by a nose.

Baffert later admitted that, beneath his lighthearted exterior, he was devastated.

"Most trainers only get one shot at this race, and I thought Cavonnier was mine," he said. "I thought I'd never be back."

To the contrary, he came back and won the Derby in 1997 with Silver Charm and in 1998 with Real Quiet, and as if those wins weren't enough to cement his celebrity, those horses also won the Preakness and almost captured Triple Crowns, losing narrowly in the Belmont. Suddenly, Baffert was the world's most famous trainer.

He all but admitted yesterday that his success had him believing the Derby was a lot easier to win than it is. But he has since learned his lesson, having watched eight of his past nine Derby starters finish anywhere from third to 17th. War Emblem, a horse he picked up just weeks before the Derby, won in 2002.

"When I came here with [Preakness and Belmont winner] Point Given and Congaree in 2001 and didn't win, I realized how hard it was to win here," he said. "I have an appreciation for that now."

He also claims to have more insight into the arduous task of maneuvering fragile thoroughbreds through the prep season and into the Derby starting gate. Known for playing hunches instead of relying on statistical data, Baffert took Sinister Minister and Bob and John out of California, his home base, and carefully selected preps he thought they could win.

Almost all of his other Derby horses have come from California, but Sinister Minister took Kentucky's biggest prep race by almost 13 lengths, and Bob and John won the top New York prep. Sinister Minister had won only one of four starts before the Blue Grass.

"I'm better at managing my horses now," Baffert said. "You do this or that with them, or you don't do this or that with them. Now I take them and run them where they can improve."

Not that he is taking all the credit for getting three horses into the field.

"I'm basically training the same as I always have," he said. "The last couple of years, it looked like I wasn't doing too good. This business is very streaky. You get on a roll. It always comes back to the horses. With the horses, I can get it done. Without the horses, I can't get it done."

Sinister Minister almost surely will take the early lead Saturday, Baffert believes, beating out a handful of similarly fast horses that like to run on the lead.

"There's a lot of speed in this race," Baffert said, "but my guy is the speed of the speed."

A fast pace would set things up for Point Determined or Bob and John, both of whom like to rally from the middle of the pack.

"There's a lot of luck involved with 20 horses in the race. It comes down to who has a good trip," Baffert said. "But I like my chances. Brother Derek [the Derby favorite] is a real nice horse, the real deal, for sure. But I wouldn't trade places with anyone."

john.eisenberg@baltsun.com

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