Baffert on top of the world after Preakness victory

But spirits at Belmont Park sink after trainers decide not to run Lookin At Lucky, Super Saver in third jewel of Triple Crown

May 17, 2010|By Kevin Van Valkenburg, The Baltimore Sun

It's not often Bob Baffert makes it to the barn when the first number on the clock is a six, much less a five.

But there was Baffert at 5:50 a.m. Sunday morning, looking bright-eyed, satisfied and downright elated the day after winning his fifth Preakness with Lookin At Lucky. He was in such a good mood, he said, that he bounced out of bed and wanted to go straight to the barn. He was having so much fun talking to a handful of bleary-eyed reporters, he decided to parody Robert Duvall's famous line from "Apocalypse Now."

"I love Pimlico the morning after you win," Baffert said. "Smells like ... victory!"

Baffert had a good reason to celebrate. The man who dominated Triple Crown races in the late 1990s hadn't sniffed the winner's circle in eight years until Saturday, when Lookin At Lucky outran a 12-horse field that included Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver.

To Baffert, it felt even longer.

"It seemed like 12 years until yesterday," Baffert joked. "When we hit the wire, it seemed like about three years since we'd won it."

It was a redemptive moment for the horse as well. Everyone acknowledged his talent, but Lookin At Lucky had been bounced around and run into trouble in his past two races — the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby — and it was beginning to look as if he would never fulfill his promise.

"When he hit the wire, I was just thinking, 'Man, you deserve it, you little fighter,'" Baffert said. "He's such a warrior."

As thrilled as Baffert was, officials at Belmont Park had to feel just the opposite when Baffert repeated that Lookin At Lucky would not travel to New York for the third leg of the Triple Crown and was headed back to California.

Derby winner Super Saver won't run either even though trainer Todd Pletcher is based at Belmont. Whatever sizzle the Belmont was hoping for turned to a fizzle Sunday morning.

Baffert said Lookin At Lucky came out of the race healthy and rested well Saturday night but that he's too immature to run 11/2 miles. Lookin At Lucky doesn't officially turn 3 years old for two weeks.

"If we were going for the Triple Crown, I would take him," Baffert said. "But I want to take him home and freshen him up. I ran him real hard as a 2-year-old. He deserves a little rest. I want to keep this horse around."

Super Saver will get some rest as well, and probably could use it. The Derby winner ended up a co-favorite with Lookin At Lucky by post time and was in position to challenge during the race, but he faded badly in the stretch and finished eighth.

"Like I said after the race, we wanted to win the Preakness," Pletcher said. "There's nothing more that I would have loved to have done than to come back to Belmont with a chance at the Triple Crown, but we are so happy about the way he ran in the Derby, and so thankful about that, that it would be hard to be disappointed about anything he ever does from this point on. I think it softens the blow a bit. You can always look back and know you won the Derby, and that's paramount. Anytime you lose a race and don't run as well as the horse is capable of, it's disappointing, but it's no reflection on how good of a horse he is, and we're glad to have him."

Baffert said Lookin At Lucky was so beat up in the Derby, where he drew the No. 1 post position and finished sixth after getting bounced off the rail twice early in the race, that the trainer was actually trying to find a reason to scratch him in the two weeks between the Derby and Preakness.

But the horse looked so good in training, and finally drew a good post position, that Baffert felt he had to run him.

"I was actually thinking of scratching him if he got the rail," Baffert said. "I thought: There is something not jiving with this horse. He has a dark cloud over him. But when he got the No. 7 [post position], I thought, well, somebody wants him to win. Now he has a chance."

Baffert acknowledged that a lot has changed since he was regarded as the top trainer in the game.

"We're a lot older, but I don't know that we're any wiser," he joked.

He told a story during the week about walking along the Pimlico infield fence in 1998 with Mike Pegram, who owned Real Quiet and is now one of Lookin At Lucky's three co-owners. A rowdy fan asked Pegram whether he wanted to down a beer from a homemade bong, and Pegram shrugged his shoulders and obliged, only to be ribbed by Baffert when it turned out the beer was warm from being in the sun all day.

Real Quiet won the Preakness that year, and so Pegram was asked whether he gave any thought to repeating the gesture this year for good luck.

"I didn't do nothing like that this time, because I'm too old," said Pegram, one of Baffert's close friends. "Ten years is a long time. We're all too old. You forget how long and hard it is to get here, and that time waits for none of us. I'm going to be real old if I have to wait that long to get here again, which is why you treasure the moment."

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