Baffert's newest star

With a converging crush in the Del Mar winner's circle, people positioned themselves to pose happily for the celebratory photo, but one guy, conspicuous because of his white hair and familiar because of his continual presence at such gatherings, seemed oblivious to it all. Bob Baffert focused instead on the horse, an unbeaten 2-year-old filly he trains. Executiveprivilege had just won the Sorrento Stakes, confirming her trainer's opinion that she's "very special." And as she walked into the winner's enclosure, Baffert watched her intently, with appreciation.

Executiveprivilege gave Baffert his 33rd stakes victory of the year, according to Equibase. Wednesday's Sorrento also became Baffert's 23rd graded stakes victory this season, a total that surpasses any other trainer's. And so despite a heart attack in March and narrow losses in the Triple Crown, Baffert is in the middle of a great season. Not just good, but great. And his season could get even better, his success even more booming, over the next few months.

This is one of the best groups of horses I've ever had.

-- Bob Baffert, trainer

"This is one of the best groups of horses I've ever had," Baffert said about his stable, where the talent runs deep and the potential even deeper, across several divisions. Baffert has entered more than 40 different horses in stakes this year, and the 2-year-olds in his barn are just starting to step forward.

But two numbers, I think, most tellingly reveal the sort of season this has been for Baffert. The first is 38.82. So far this year (through Wednesday, according to Equibase), horses from the Baffert stable have run in 85 stakes (in 22 of those, the trainer had more than one starter) and have won 33 of them. In other words, Baffert has won 38.82 percent of the stakes races in which he has participated.

The other telling number is 31,010. Baffert presently sits second in the national trainers' standings, with his stable having earned $9,830,133, behind only Todd Pletcher, who tops the standings with $11,593,711. Horses from Pletcher's stable have averaged $21,875 in earnings per start. But as outstanding as that might be, it hardly compares to what the horses from Baffert's stable have accomplished. They have averaged $31,010 for every start.

"Keeping them healthy is the key," Baffert said about the horses in his barn and their upcoming prospects. "You can't take anything for granted. It can all change overnight."

And the situation indeed changed quickly last week when Paynter, the early and strong favorite to win the Travers Stakes on Aug. 25 at Saratoga, spiked a temperature. He was taken to an equine clinic in New Jersey, Baffert explained, with the plan being to send the colt Friday to Belmont Park and then to Saratoga. The Travers, Baffert said, still remains a possibility for Paynter, but the colt might also make his next start Sept. 22 in the Pennsylvania Derby.

Still, the Baffert stable includes the two best 3-year-olds in training, Bodemeister and Paynter.

"We're trying to make the Breeders' Cup with him," Baffert said about Bodemeister, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness runner-up who has resumed training since recovering from an illness. As for Paynter, he needed fluids, "but we got lucky with him," Baffert said. The Breeders' Cup should also be in Paynter's future.

Behind those two, but not too distant, in the stable's hierarchy of 3-year-olds are two more stakes winners: Liasion, who's preparing for the Travers, and Blueskiesnrainbows, the Swaps Stakes winner who, Baffert said, will travel to Louisiana Downs for the Super Derby on Sept. 8. And waiting in the wings is a potential superstar, Fed Biz, whose Triple Crown potential sparkled early in the year, before a "minor setback" sent him to the sidelines. He has resumed training.

Baffert, of course, trains the most accomplished older horse in the country, Game On Dude, who's the leader in the race to be Horse of the Year and who, his trainer said, just keeps getting better. Baffert expects to saddle Game On Dude and another multiple stakes winner, Richard's Kid, in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 26 at Del Mar.

Also in the Baffert barn are one of the nation's best sprinters, The Factor, who'll make his next start Sept. 1 in the Forego at Saratoga; one of the best 3-year-old fillies, Eden's Moon, who's targeting the Del Mar Oaks on Aug. 18; one of nation's fastest fillies, Contested, who'll make her next start Aug. 25 in the Test Stakes at Saratoga; and, of course, Executiveprivilege, who'll be the overwhelming favorite to win the Del Mar Debutante on Sept. 1.

The reasons for all this success, of course, are good people and good horses, and Baffert said he tries to surround himself with both. But clearly something's going on here beyond the self-evident requirements of quality.

What often seems impulsive is actually instinctive. Baffert trains horses instinctively. He knows the horses in his barn, their habits and instincts, nuances of behavior that can perhaps be either propitious or portentous – it's significant, I think, that unlike many top trainers, he doesn't split his stable into divisions located at different racetracks -- and after reading all the signs and indicators he moves instinctively, or, as he described it, he follows his "gut feeling."

And this year, that "gut feeling" has guided his stable through several months of remarkable success. Baffert began slowly, winning just one stakes in January. But over a two-week stretch in February, he sent out 14 starters that won 12 races, including five stakes, at Santa Anita, Oaklawn Park and Golden Gate. Winning with 31 percent of all his starters this year, Baffert can now direct that momentum in the direction of the Breeders' Cup World Championships, Nov. 2-3 at Santa Anita.

Back in 1999, when his stable topped the national standings with $16,841,407 in earnings, Baffert had seven starters in the Breeders' Cup championship races. But this year could be even better for him.

It almost has to be, he joked.

"I remember (in 1999) this heckler followed me around all day," Baffert said, recalling that Breeders' Cup at Gulfstream Park. "Every time I turned around, this guy was there, calling me a loser. I felt like a character (Happy Gilmore) in an Adam Sandler movie. And I got the big doughnut; I didn't win a race."

Ok, this year could be much, much better.