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THE INSIDE TRACK | SUNDAY SCENE / BILL PLASCHKE

Horse Racing Not Baffling to Baffert, People's Choice

November 17, 1996|Bill Plaschke

Midweek afternoon at Hollywood Park, a smattering of horseplayers in the stands, half of them bugging Bob Baffert, the big-money trainer who looks and talks and laughs the way they do.

"Nice lock, Fat Eddie," he says to one. "Now get out of here."

The Baffert-trained Over Houston will be running soon in the fifth race and the owner's son wonders if the esteemed horseman is going to walk down and give jockey Kent Desormeaux final instructions.

"What for?" Baffert asks.

OK, says the owner's son, leaving his folding chair. Can he relay a message?

"Tell Desormeaux this," Baffert says, pausing, patting his jeans. "Tell him I don't care what he does, as long as he wins."

*

Six months after swallowing one of the closest defeats in the grand history of the Kentucky Derby, Bob Baffert has finally purged the last sad memories.

Well, actually, one of his four young children purged them for him.

"I had two tapes of the race, but the kids accidentally taped over it," he said. "It was either Ninja Turtles or Playboy Channel, I'm not sure which."

Those six months could be six years, for all the Derby defeat has affected the popular Southland trainer.

He already has some top early contenders for next year's Derby, including highly rated In Excessive Bull and Photarc.

And he still laughs enough to steam up the sunglasses on one Wayne Lukas.

It was the more renowned Lukas' Grindstone who defeated Baffert's Cavonnier by four inches in a photo finish in the Derby.

Instead of deflating him, the toughest loss in Bob Baffert's career has made him larger than ever.

"This business is not as difficult as people think," he said. "But we have to make it sound difficult, or everyone would want to get in it."

It being Baffert's first Derby, and a chance for the first Derby victory by a California-bred horse in 34 years, the race became the stuff of local lore--particularly the part during the stretch run, when Baffert excitedly used a rolled-up program to knock over his wife's hat and pound on a nearby priest.

"I'm one of those guys who lives for the moment," Baffert said.

That moment turned from good to bad after the photo showed his horse had lost, and then to absolutely strange later in the Churchill Downs barn.

Waiting there for Baffert was Dick Vitale.

"I have no idea what he was doing there," Baffert said. "He asks me if I actually saw the photo, and I told him no, and he started shouting that I should have examined it, that he would have thrown a fit, it was like a Final Four loss at the buzzer. . . ."

Baffert survived the visit, the Derby outcome and Cavonnier pulling up lame a month later in the Belmont, then returned to the humble surroundings of his stable of Southland admirers.

Baffert lives here, has his stables here, and has become such a part of the community that his wife missed Cavonnier's win in last year's Santa Anita Derby because she was driving their son to a Little League game.

Someone like Lukas is horse racing as a corporation.

Baffert is horse racing as a corner grocery.

"I don't think Fat Eddie would ever walk up to Lukas," said Baffert, 43. "I guess I could spend more time up in the Turf Club rubbing elbows with the millionaires, but that's just not me."

He looked around the clubhouse boxes, where another gambler was waiting for his ear. "I'm more comfortable right here."

And why not? "Right here" is more comfortable than from where he came, a ranch in southern Arizona where he grew up both breaking horses and riding them in local races.

His jockey career ended after 25 mounts, followed by a career of training quarter horses, which ended when he decided to try thoroughbreds in 1989.

"I want to be on NBC," he said at the time. "With quarter horses, I was always on ESPN at three in the morning."

His experience with all sorts of horses led to his quick rise to national prominence among hundreds of trainers with more connections and bigger bank accounts.

He will test his Derby hopefuls next month in the Hollywood Futurity in preparation for next spring's big Derby push.

His philosophy?

"Horses are like kids, trainers are like their coaches," he said. "The best thing being, horses can't talk back."

*

Midweek afternoon at Hollywood Park, and Baffert's Over Houston has started the fifth race from the crowded rear and is almost six lengths behind at the first call.

"I hope [Desormeaux] knows what he's doing," Baffert mutters.

Desormeaux does. The horse races outside at the top of the stretch and sprints past the field for a victory.

Baffert leans back in his folding chair and smiles.

"You see?" he says. "You have to coach."

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