Baffert vs. Ward, round 2
By Bill Finley
Special to ESPN.com
It's a funny game, a fickle game. It was just two weeks ago that Bob Baffert was a training swami with the horse who was so special he had them uttering the magical words, "Triple Crown." And John Ward Jr. was just another trainer who had a horse that was yesterday's news.
This is as much a rematch between trainers as it is between horses.
Ward did not work Monarchos during Kentucky Derby week, an unusual move that would have reflected poorly on the trainer had his horse run a poor race. For the few reporters who hadn't given up on Monarchos after his subpar performance in the Wood Memorial and bothered to wander by the Ward barn seeking an explanation, the trainer said that he didn't want to hammer away on his horse and have nothing left after the Derby.
"I tried to train the old-fashioned way," he said following the race. "I try to take care of horses the best way that I was taught. This is one for tradition."
No one has ever accused Baffert of doing anything the old-fashioned way.
He is the nouveau riche trainer. He came from nowhere, made piles of money, is flippant and marches to the beat of his own drummer. A lot of old school trainers don't like him. On the Monday before the Derby he worked Point Given and stablemate Congaree five furlongs in a blistering :58.20. No one thought anything of it at the time but when Team Baffert failed to get the job done, and Point Given ran a particularly flat race, the Sunday morning quarterbacks were saying that the Baffert horses left their races on the track that Monday morning.
Ward, for one, talked openly about how his style was different from that of the "California guys."
Baffert knew who he meant. He told the Daily Racing Form that he believed Ward's comments were directed at him and his training style, adding with a touch of sarcasm, "Maybe that's why I'm having a bad year."
He seemed uninterested in fanning the flames this week but did comment on the contrast in styles between the two trainers.
"He (Ward) has got a different way," Baffert said. "He gallops them really fast. He puts long, hard gallops into them. It's sort of the same. It's pretty hard on them, too."
Neither trainer has changed their modus operandi during Preakness Week. Monarchos still hasn't had a legitimate workout. When asked if had any doubts about Monarchos' soft work routine, Ward replied: "Not at all. There is life after the Triple Crown."
Point Given and Monarchos slowed up a bit in their works, but still had the trademark strong five-furlong Baffert work between the two races. True to form, Baffert has not panicked. But, for him, the pressure clearly will be on Saturday. Some believed Baffert had the strongest one-two Derby punch since Citation and Coaltown ran first and second in 1948, yet Baffert failed to produce anything better than a third-place finish from Congaree. He can win the Dubai World Cup, the Santa Anita Derby and everything else there is to win and still could be remembered this year for coming up empty in the Kentucky Derby. He needs this to put the bloom back on his rose.
As for Ward, it's a case of whether or not his master plan succeed?
Should he win the Preakness, proving that he found a way to win the Kentucky Derby and still come out of it with a fresh horse, he will be accorded super trainer status. Should he lose, everyone will say that maybe he isn't so smart after all.
You can bet each trainer wants this one, for their horses ... and for themselves.