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BELMONT STAKES

Not Their Favorite

Despite his success training horses, Baffert has had strained relationships with some of their owners

June 07, 2002|BILL CHRISTINE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ELMONT, N.Y. — Bob Baffert, three-time Eclipse Award winner, the No. 1 trainer on the money list again this year and conditioner of War Emblem, a possible Triple Crown champion, doesn't please all of his clients all the time. In fact, Baffert at one time didn't even please Ahmed bin Salman, the Saudi Arabian prince who owns War Emblem.

"We weren't doing much good, and the prince took his horses away from me," Baffert said.

Then a few years later, in early 2000, the prince called Baffert to renew their partnership.

"He said that [Richard Mulhall, president of Bin Salman's Thoroughbred Corp.] had gone too far, that all he was trying to do was protect [the prince's] interests," Baffert said. "Then he asked me to go out to the farm and pick out five or six horses."

Having just been sacked by Aaron Jones, another well-heeled owner, Baffert was very much in the market for new horseflesh. He accepted the prince's offer, and one of the horses he selected at the farm in Bradbury was Point Given, who won last year's Preakness and Belmont Stakes and was voted the Eclipse Award for best 3-year-old colt.

In tandem, Baffert and the prince are back at the Belmont, which will be run Saturday. The difference this time is that their War Emblem, whom Baffert green-lighted for the prince to buy for $900,000 in April, not only can win the Belmont but can collect a $5-million bonus for sweeping the Triple Crown. He's the even-money favorite in a field that was reduced to 11 horses Thursday with the scratch of 30-1 shot Puzzlement, who has a bruised foot.

"I wanted to bet War Emblem so badly in the Kentucky Derby, but because of Baffert I just couldn't do it," said Barbara Walter, an owner who once employed Baffert but said she would never send horses to him again. "I'm pulling for War Emblem to win the Belmont because racing needs that, but not because of the trainer."

Barbara and Bob Walter raced Charmonnier, whose victory in the 1991 California Cup Classic at Santa Anita encouraged Baffert to permanently forsake the quarter horse business and concentrate on thoroughbreds. The Walters also raced Cavonnier, who lost the closest of photo finishes to Grindstone in the 1996 Kentucky Derby. That was Baffert's first year at the Derby; since then he's won the race with Silver Charm in 1997, Real Quiet in 1998 and War Emblem this year.

The Walters, who live in Sebastopol in Northern California, have fired Baffert twice, first in 1992 and then again a couple of years ago.

"We didn't like the way he treated our horses and we thought he exercised poor judgment," Barbara Walter said.

Baffert's autobiography, "Dirt Road to the Derby," published in 1999, also incensed the Walters. Generally, they objected to its smart-alecky tone and bathhouse humor.

"In the beginning, Bob was Peck's bad boy and was so charming," Barbara Walter said. "Now he's snide, arrogant and dirty."

Baffert said that he would train again for the Walters if given the chance.

"Any time I'd have trouble with [Bob Walter], his wife would smooth things over," Baffert said. "She and I were born on the same day [Jan. 13]. I had trouble communicating with [Bob Walter]. I thought I did a good job for them. We still talk when we run into each other. When I'm wrong, I can take it. But when I'm right, I stick to my guns."

In the book, Baffert said that when Grindstone and Cavonnier hit the wire almost simultaneously in the Derby, Barbara Walter put up two fingers, indicating that she thought Cavonnier had finished second.

"I felt like cutting her fingers off," Baffert said in the book.

Barbara Walter said that she wrote the publisher, The Blood-Horse Inc., complaining about the book.

The Walters said that Baffert used their brilliant filly, Tout Charmant, as a rabbit--a horse who sets the pace for another horse--in the 1999 Matriarch at Hollywood Park. Baffert's other horse, for a different owner, was Tuzla, who finished second. Tout Charmant, who would win the Matriarch in 2000 for her new trainer, Ron McAnally, finished eighth

"Tout Charmant ran suicidal fractions," Barbara Walter said. "She was dead after running that fast early. When Bob came to our table after the race, he said that her jockey, Jerry Bailey, wasn't aware how fast they were traveling. A jockey like Jerry Bailey not being able to judge pace? Mr. W. [Bob Walter] had a fit. He said to Baffert, 'I don't want you to ever use one of my horses as a rabbit.' "

When Tout Charmant was later sold to Bob and Janice McNair for $1.1 million, a stipulation of the sale by the Walters was that the horse be transferred from Baffert to McAnally.

"The thing you have to admit about Bob Baffert is that he has a hell of an eye for a horse," Barbara Walter said. "Look how he found War Emblem just in time for the Derby. No matter how much you might dislike him otherwise, he's really got that going for him."

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