'Things happen for a reason'

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

No one can say exactly when new money becomes old.

But apparently a month is pushing it.

Maybe that's why so many people kept asking trainer Bob Baffert and Prince Ahmed Salman, his deep-pocketed Saudi benefactor, whether they felt like they ''bought'' the Kentucky Derby.

''Everybody buys the Derby, because you have to buy a horse or raise a horse,'' Salman said.

Having tried to win it both ways, he was anything but apologetic.

''If you tell me who's going to win it,'' Salman added, ''I'll buy it again.''

Not only that -- he defied someone to find fault with that logic.

Fans of the New York Yankees will understand. Sometimes, you develop talent and other times, you're lucky enough to trip over it. Either way, the trick is knowing what to do with it.

Salman thinks nothing about dropping $2 million on a yearling. Last year, he parked one of those pricey, long-term investments named Point Given in Baffert's barn at Churchill Downs, watched the colt go off as the favorite and finish fifth.

This year, he laid out $900,000 to buy War Emblem just a few days after the horse won the Illinois Derby, shipped him to Baffert a week later and watched the dark bay post a wire-to-wire win in thoroughbred racing's premier event. Imagine what he saved in room and board alone.

''I thought the price was extremely reasonable,'' Salman said. ''I think it's much smarter to buy a horse four weeks ago than to raise them.''

Baffert, who spent the week leading to the race fending off questions about the topic, thought the answer was obvious enough to spare repeating. Still, he tried to put the matter to rest one more time the day after.

''If it wasn't me,'' Baffert said Sunday, ''somebody would have bought him.''

Racing is known as the sport of kings, not in the least because only the rich can afford to play.

Sure, it makes for a touching story when some long-suffering trainer or patron of the game wins the Derby after breeding a horse and breaking it in, surviving the trials and tribulations of a typical 2-year-old's season, then finally seeing it squeak past a deep and talented field on the first Saturday in May.

Who, after all, will ever forget the scene in the stands played out on national TV at the end of the 1990 Derby? As Unbridled pulled away to what would be a 3 1/2-length victory, Carl Nafzger, a trainer who cut his teeth as a rodeo rider, stood alongside 92-year-old, nearly blind owner Frances Genter and tried to call the end of the race for her.

''He's taking the lead. He's gonna win. He's gonna win. He's gonna win,'' Nafzger said, his voice rising. ''He's a winner! He's a winner! He's a winner, Mrs. Genter! You've won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter! I love you.''

After a moment like that, you'd need ice water in your veins to be worried about Mrs. Genter's net worth. But rest assured, you'd need a calculator to come up with the right answer.

What happened Saturday wasn't sweet. Baffert can be arrogant to the point where it's easy to forget, that very much like Nafzger, he's paid his dues. And while Salman hasn't been part of the scene as long as people named Genter and Phipps and Hancock, it's worth noting that he's narrowed the spending gap considerably in the few years he's been around.

Yet, if anything, what Salman's previous experience with the Derby proved is that money alone won't win it.

Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, Baffert's chief rival and one of only two men to own more Derby titles, ran a three-horse entry in 1995, when he won his second. The next year, he had five horses start the race and had Grindstone deliver a third title. Such is the lure of the Derby that each of the owners involved with Lukas -- wealthy people all -- never worried that their chances were being compromised.

Just the opposite. They all understood that hiring Lukas, like Baffert, meant that the odds were just that little bit shorter. That's as close to buying the Derby as it truly gets.

''Things happen for a reason,'' Baffert said. ''We found that horse, got lucky, got him here and nobody picked him. Anybody who says anything bad about him ... they didn't win any money on him.''

But Baffert knows it only gets tougher from here on out.

He's now won two-thirds of the Triple Crown three times. Silver Charm and Real Quiet were Derby-Preakness winners, then lost the Belmont by four strides and a nose, respectively. Point Given, who never got hold of the Churchill Down racing strip, recovered from his Derby disappointment last year to take the Preakness and Belmont. Baffert understands what War Emblem needs now more than cash is luck.

''No way I was thinking about the Triple Crown for this horse,'' he said Saturday night. ''But now, I'm thinking, yeah, Triple Crown.''

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



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