'You wish that 100 yards could last forever'

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

He left this place last year with curses ringing in his ears. Bob Baffert vowed to come back. He always does. It's only one reason why he's the best trainer in thoroughbred racing.

''I walked up last year like it was going to be a piece of cake. It's not like that. You've got to be lucky,'' Baffert said, his voice trailing off, ''so lucky to fall on a horse like that.''

Baffert was back in the winner's circle at the Kentucky Derby for a third time in the last half-dozen years, this time with a last-minute buy named War Emblem. Baffert was back because the dark bay colt fell into his lap, because he's got the richest owners, the best staff and the best facilities.

But mostly, he was back because for all the winning Baffert does, he knows losing just as intimately.

And hates it to the very bottom of his soul.

''I never thought I'd ever have that feeling again,'' he said. ''But at the eighth pole, you see your horse and you know you're going to win and you wish that 100 yards could last forever.''

Last year, he took two shots at the Kentucky Derby and both turned out to be duds.

As he walked through the concourse on his way to the paddock, a few drunks, clinging to betting slips no longer worth the tiny piece of paper they were printed on, looked at him with undisguised scorn. A few who were drunk and disappointed went further than that. Baffert, tie still knotted and blazer still buttoned, looked straight ahead. He just kept on walking.

Turns out he'd had plenty of practice.

Four years ago, Baffert won his second Derby and then the Preakness with a horse named Real Quiet, but lost the last leg of the Triple Crown by the length of the colt's nose. As he walked back toward his barn, a New York crowd tougher than anything that Churchill Downs' railbirds can muster, started taunting him.

Baffert paused in front of the grandstand and shouted back, ''Hey, Ali got knocked out, too, didn't he?''

And just like Ali, Baffert roared back Saturday to win another heavyweight championship.

''There's a mystique about this race,'' he said. ''When it's your turn, it's your turn.''

Some people complained that Baffert bought his way into the race, that all he did was spot War Emblem running away from the field at the Illinois Derby a month ago and persuade his deepest-pocketed owner, Saudi Prince Ahmed Salman, to fork over a reported $1 million.

Neither man was in a mood to apologize. That's one prerogative of winning.

''Everybody buys the Derby because you have to buy a horse or raise a horse,'' Salman said. ''If you tell me who's going to win, I'll buy it again.''

Baffert said: ''That's the good thing about good horses. It doesn't matter what barn they go in.''

There's little doubt the racing public and media loved Baffert more as the spunky underdog than the ubertrainer. A dozen years ago, he stepped up from the quarterhorse game to the thoroughbreds, which was like going from dirt-track racing to the Indianapolis 500.

He was a fresh face, quick on the draw and funny, to boot. He brought a little luster to a sport in need of a lot.

Now he shows up flush with talent, fabulously wealthy owners and a stable operation that is the envy of the business.

To some people, that success made Baffert's barbs seem more pointed, his jokes less funny, and his habit of showing up at the barns several hours after the rest of the fraternity with bloodshot eyes more arrogant than raffish. All of a sudden, his personal life was in play, too; news about his divorce made the papers.

''There's so much jealousy in our business,'' he said earlier in the week. ''They don't like anything new or different. They don't like change.''

But now, they don't have much choice.

Because Baffert was so late mounting his Derby campaign, the signs commemorating his 1997 and '98 Derby victories were nowhere to be seen last week, having been removed during the winter and not rehung.

''They sold them on eBay,'' Baffert said, joking.

But you knew right about then, somebody was going to pay.

There is confidence and there is cockiness, and Baffert comes by both honestly. Those qualities were why new-money owner Mike Pegram lifted him out of minor-league racing with a million-dollar stake, and why old-money owners Bob and Beverly Lewis took a pass on an established star like D. Wayne Lukas nearly 10 years ago and turned Silver Charm over to Baffert.

''He's really a genius,'' Salman said. ''Especially when he wears his sunglasses.''

Baffert had them on Saturday, when he knew enough about a horse he'd only trained a month to tell jockey Victor Espinosa to get to the front and wait. The strategy turned out to be perfect.

For all his troubles, for all the jealousy hemming him on every side, no one doubts that Baffert is back on top of his game -- least of all Baffert himself.

''It seems like the guys that have been with me a few years -- Pegram, the Lewises, the prince -- their time comes.

So,'' Baffert said, with a turn of that familiar silver mane, ''sign up now.''

Jim Litke is the national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.

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