|(Copyright, The Times Mirror Company; Los Angeles Times 1997 all Rights reserved)|
Bob Baffert knows what he wants for Christmas. All he wants for Christmas is his two front-runners, so to speak.
Baffert, you will remember, is the horse trainer who burst on the Kentucky Derby scene the last couple of years by getting beat by a dirty nose one year and winning it the next.
Not only did Cavonnier come within a nose of winning the Derby in '96, but Silver Charm came within a half-length or so of winning the Triple Crown in '97.
It's not that easy, even though Baffert made it look that way.
Let me ask you: What is the hardest event to win in all the fabric of sports? Why, the Kentucky Derby, of course.
Look at it this way: If you're a horse, you get only one chance in your lifetime.
If you're a rider, well, consider that some of the greatest never won it. Johnny Adams was 0 for 13. The great Laffit Pincay is only one for 19. Laverne Fator never won it. Manny Ycaza. Georgie Woolf. The greatest rider who ever rode, Willie Shoemaker, was only four for 26.
If you're a trainer, forget it. Consider that Wayne Lukas has sent out 32 horses and won with only three. Hirsch Jacobs never won it. Neither has the great Ron McAnally. Sylvester Veitch was 0 for 10.
So Baffert, a nose from two Kentucky Derbies in a row, less than a length from a Triple Crown in his first go at it, has no beef. Not that he would anyway. Bob is not the type to brood.
He's the most un-trainerish character you'll meet on a backstretch. You know how most horse trainers are? Tight-lipped, suspicious, uncommunicative. Spies are gregarious compared to them. They take showers with their wallets in their hand. They work their horses in the dark so clockers can't get a line on them.
Not Baffert. Bob would work his horse down Wilshire Boulevard during lunch hour, for all he cares. He's looking to finish first, not win at the windows.
When he won the Kentucky Derby, he showed up in the winner's circle wearing the silver cup on his head and dancing a jig.
His notion is that racing takes itself too seriously. When Baffert loses, he doesn't sulk at the back of the barn. He gets down his guitar and strikes a few chords. One of his biggest regrets at losing the Belmont was he blew a chance to go on "The Tonight Show." Most old-line trainers wouldn't go on the show at gunpoint. Baffert would fly cross-country to do it.
It's not that Baffert doesn't understand the situation. He knows as much about the horse as any Sunny Jim Fitzsimmons or Plain Ben Jones ever did. He was raised in the same horse country--Arizona--as Wyatt Earp.
They used to say about baseball's Branch Rickey that he could tell a championship player from the window of a moving train. Well, Baffert can tell a great horse from a grainy videotape.
Silver Charm got the spot in his barn the same way Vivien Leigh got "Gone With The Wind." He took a screen test.
Here is how it happened: Baffert had been badly burned on another horse he bought sight unseen. The horse couldn't beat a burro.
So, when he was offered Silver Charm off an auction block in Ocala, Baffert's retort was "Not till I see him first. Send me a tape."
They did. When Baffert saw it, and saw that stride and the graceful way of going, he couldn't get to a phone fast enough. He bought him for his owners, Bob and Beverly Lewis.
It's not that Silver Charm was so eager to please. He was like a lot of natural athletes, he didn't take kindly to discipline, routine. He found the morning workouts kind of a bore. The riders who took him out were troubled. "He acts like he doesn't want to run," they complained. "He acts like he's exhausted."
He was kind of like Baffert, he didn't seem to take himself too seriously.
Then, they dropped the flag in the afternoon and they found out something about Silver Charm that doesn't show in the conformation or morning workouts: He hates to lose.
Most racehorses are faint-hearted creatures. They like it when they're out there running fast and all alone. Then, something draws alongside and they wilt. Pack it in, fade to sixth.
Not Silver Charm. When a horse passed him, he took it personally. He won the 1996 Del Mar Futurity but it was this year's Santa Anita Derby--which he lost--that showed what a sore loser he is.
In that race, he ran with the front-runner, Sharp Cat, through blistering fractions, :22, :45, 1:09 and 1:34 2/5. He put Sharp Cat away. Then he got caught in the stretch. Free House went by him as if he was parked.
But then Silver Charm, annoyed, went after him. He lost by only a head.
Free House never beat him again, finishing behind him in each of the Triple Crown races.
Silver Charm comes back to the races Friday at the opening of Santa Anita in the seven-furlong $200,000 Malibu Stakes.
Baffert and the Lewises still have their sights set on horse of the year for the Charm ("He got outrun, he didn't get out-gutted," Lewis said of his Belmont showing).
Down the line could be the Santa Anita Handicap on March 7. Only four horses in the 60-year history of that race have parlayed a Kentucky Derby win into a Big 'Cap win. Baffert would like to have the fifth.
If he does, you'll have no difficulty recognizing him. He'll be the one cartwheeling down the homestretch whistling "Dixie."
PHOTO: Bob Baffert has Silver Charm entered in the $200,000 Malibu Stakes at Santa Anita on Friday.; PHOTOGRAPHER: Associated Press
|Sub Title: ||[Home Edition]|
|Edition: ||Record edition|
|Column Name: ||JIM MURRAY|
|Start Page: ||1|
|Subject Terms: ||Horse racing|
|Personal Names: ||Baffert, Bob|