DEL MAR — Trainer Bob Baffert was at Keeneland on Wednesday night, bidding on an expensive yearling, when he noticed on television that one of his promising 2-year-olds, Beginnings, had been pulled up by jockey Gary Stevens in a maiden race at Del Mar.
"It was an eerie feeling," Baffert said. "In the middle of trying to buy a horse one place, and worried about a nice young horse someplace else."
In Kentucky, the auction suddenly became less of a priority. Baffert picked up his cellular phone and dialed the portable number of Mike Pegram, his good friend and fast-food magnate who races Real Quiet. As it turned out, Pegram was in Del Mar, but not at the track. The opening-day crowd of more than 30,000 had kept him away.
"Did my horse break down?" Baffert asked of Pegram, who was also watching on television.
"Well," the down-to-earth Pegram said, "from what I can see, they haven't brought out the wagon [horse ambulance], so that's a good sign."
A popping sound had sent Stevens into a protective mode, but as it turned out Beginnings wasn't injured and he'll get another chance another day.
"You always worry about the 2-year-olds," Baffert said Friday morning. "They're your future stars."
The trainer has 15 juveniles on the grounds at Del Mar, and even more in the wings at Santa Anita. Baffert, who has won four of the last six Triple Crown races--two apiece with Silver Charm and Real Quiet--is back at Del Mar, where he quietly introduced a future star two summers ago. On Aug. 10, 1996, Silver Charm made his debut for owners Bob and Beverly Lewis, running second to trainer Wayne Lukas' Deeds Not Words in a six-furlong sprint. Deeds Not Words, who would finish last in the 1997 Kentucky Derby, more than 25 lengths behind Silver Charm, won the Del Mar race by four lengths.
"I didn't think we could get beat that day [at Del Mar]," Baffert said. "I was just sick when we lost. I thought, 'I misread that dude.' "
The rest of the 1996 meet, Silver Charm didn't do anything wrong at Del Mar. He beat maidens two weeks after the loss to Deeds Not Words, and then the gray colt capped the local season with a narrow victory over the Lukas-trained Gold Tribute in the Del Mar Futurity.
Today, Silver Charm returns to his roots, running as the 4-5 morning-line favorite in the $250,000 San Diego Handicap. Since he has been away, this full-bodied 4-year-old has conquered Churchill Downs and Pimlico and Santa Anita and even Dubai. He has earned $4.8 million--eight wins and six seconds in 14 starts--and will use today's race as a prep for the $1-million Pacific Classic on Aug. 15.
Since winning the $4-million Dubai World Cup in March, Silver Charm has finished second to Awesome Again in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill and missed the Hollywood Gold Cup because of a fever. Baffert has been criticized for skipping California's first two $1-million races this year--before the Gold Cup, a bruised foot knocked Silver Charm out of the Santa Anita Handicap--but he believes that he did the best thing for the horse.
The best thing for Silver Charm after Del Mar will be a fall campaign that leads to the $4-million Breeders' Cup Classic on Nov. 7 at Churchill Downs, where a showdown with Skip Away might finally happen. Skip Away won the Gold Cup while Silver Charm stayed in the barn, but the current leader for horse of the year isn't expected to leave the East Coast until he runs in the Breeders' Cup.
Baffert has made a midseason resolution of sorts.
"I'm trying not to get caught up in all that title stuff," he said. "You start thinking about titles and it screws up what you're thinking. It takes the fun out of it."
Asked what he expects of Silver Charm today, Baffert said:
"I just hope that he runs hard and comes back safe. He needs this race for the next one, and that's what it is, a prep. I'm going to try to watch as a fan. This horse has done so much, it's just fun to watch him run. Horses beat horses, and he just wasn't fit enough for that last race."
This will be the richest running of the San Diego Handicap, a stake that originally was listed as a $150,000 race. Baffert said that Silver Charm would have been running even before the purse went to $250,000. He said that the purse was increased to encourage other trainers to take a shot.
One of Silver Charm's six rivals, Don't Blame Rio, keeps getting outclassed in these big races, but his trainer, Doug Peterson, is laughing all the way to the paymaster's office. The 5-year-old gelding has earned $347,204 while winning three of 36 starts. Don't Blame Rio made $120,000 of his total by running third in the Santa Anita Handicap, which became a four-horse race when Silver Charm was scratched.
"That's a lot of money for a horse we claimed for $32,000 as a 3-year- old," Peterson said. "We took him off Michael Harte at Hollywood Park. But give the owner [June Daniels] the credit. It was Mrs. Daniels' idea to claim him."
Horse Racing Notes
Since early in 1997, the Daily Racing Form has been for sale, off the market and then back on the market again, and Friday it was announced that the 104-year-old daily racing newspaper was being sold to the New York-based Alpine Capital Group, which has other investments in radio, television, music and telecommunications. Primedia Inc., which as K-III Communications bought the Form and seven magazines from Rupert Murdoch for $675 million in 1991, did not announce its sale price, but there had been reports last year that the asking price for the publication was between $40 million and $60 million.
Event Of The Year, undefeated in four races when a knee injury knocked him out of the Kentucky Derby, has recovered from surgery and his rehabilitation is three weeks ahead of schedule, according to Rick Taylor, racing manager for John and Betty Mabee's Golden Eagle Farm. Event Of The Year, formerly trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, has been transferred to trainer Richard Mandella.