ESPN Horse Racing

Baffert stays cool for third Triple Crown try
by Associated Press

NEW YORK -- On a sweltering day last week at Churchill Downs, Bob Baffert sat in his air-conditioned office at Barn 33 and relived the two agonizing stretch runs of Silver Charm and Real Quiet in the Belmont Stakes.

One lost the Triple Crown by three-quarters of a length, the other by a nose.

''To come so close, it was disappointing,'' the trainer said, hours before he boarded a plane in Kentucky for New York. ''Fate owes me a Triple Crown.''

On Saturday, Baffert will saddle War Emblem, an ornery black beauty with an improbable past, hoping the third time really is the charm when it comes to winning thoroughbred racing's highest honor.

Already installed as the favorite in a field of 10, War Emblem would become only the 12th Triple Crown champion with a victory on the grueling 1½-mile oval.

No horse has managed to win all three legs of the Triple -- Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont -- since Affirmed in 1978. That 24-year gap is surpassed only by the 25 years between Citation's success in 1948 and Secretariat's in 1973.

Baffert, though cocky and outspoken as ever, says he's learned a few lessons since last year, when heavily favored Point Given lost a chance for the Triple Crown right from the start by failing in the Kentucky Derby but winning the Preakness and Belmont.

''I was upset with myself last year after the Triple Crown,'' Baffert said. ''We were overconfident. In the Derby, we got caught up in the strategy instead of letting him run his own race. We took him out of his game.

''So I'll just stand here and bite the bullet,'' he said. ''I'm trying to keep my focus on this horse and only this horse. We don't want to mess it up.''

The front-running colt was put in Baffert's care just three weeks before the Derby when Saudi Prince Ahmed bin Salman bought War Emblem for $900,000 shortly after his six-length victory in the Illinois Derby.

He cut the deal with owner Russell Reineman, who had no plans to run the colt in the Derby. There was talk of bone chips in two ankles and possibly one knee, but the sale went through anyway.

Dana Barnes, Baffert's top exercise rider, said her boss seems more nervous than he did during the previous Triple Crown tries. It could be, she said, because he truly believes this colt will win.

Jill Moss, Baffert's fiancee, said the pressure of a third Triple attempt is intense, but ''you'll never see Bob sweat.''

''He jokes around to relieve his own tension, to lessen the pressure,'' she said. ''He stays busy. He talks. He plays it all out.''

Baffert burst onto the Triple Crown scene in 1996, when Cavonnier lost by a nose to Grindstone in the Kentucky Derby. Stung by the loss, the former quarter horse trainer from Nogales, Ariz., was back a year later with Silver Charm.

Owned by Bob and Beverly Lewis, Silver Charm won the Derby and Preakness, and now Baffert moved into ''uncharted territory.''

''I got him to the Derby and Preakness. Now what?'' he said.

Baffert thought he had done his job when Silver Charm lined up for the Belmont on June 7, 1997. With a quarter-mile to go, Silver Charm fought off Free House for the lead and appeared to have clear sailing to the wire.

''I remember turning for home, and he was right there and it gave me a great feeling of satisfaction that your horse was in the race,'' he said. ''Now it was all heart and class.''

Then Touch Gold made a move.

''All of a sudden, I see him way on the outside and I'm thinking, 'Oh man, he's too far out. Silver Charm's not going to see him.' ''

Neither did jockey Gary Stevens and Silver Charm was beaten by three-quarters of a length.

''All this way, all these weeks and boom, you get beat like that. That was a disappointment,'' Baffert said.

The next year, Baffert figured Real Quiet couldn't lose. So he spent the week with owner Mike Pegram, a good friend, ''just having a lot of fun'' because, ''We thought it would be a slam dunk.''

Even jockey Kent Desormeaux got caught up in Triple Crown fever, signing an endorsement deal with a company.

Victory Gallop, second in the Derby and Preakness, was the horse to beat. Real Quiet, though, seemed in control, before a questionable early move by Desormeaux with three-eighths of a mile to go. As Real Quiet opened a five-length advantage with a quarter-mile left, Baffert sensed trouble.

''When Real Quiet gets out in front, he tends to look around and stuff,'' Baffert recalled thinking as he watched from an owner's box with Pegram. ''Then I'm looking back and I see one horse coming.''

As Victory Gallop moved up on Real Quiet, Desormeaux pulled his horse in front to block the path. ''Don't do that!''' Baffert remembered calling out. ''You'll get your number taken down.''

The two crossed the wire inches apart, but Victory Gallop won by a nose in a photo finish. It was the only time he was ahead of Real Quiet. A stride past the finish line, and Real Quiet had regained the lead.

Baffert scolded Desormeaux for not having enough confidence in Real Quiet. ''The horse was a fighter, and he never had a chance to fight back,'' Baffert said.

Baffert expects no such problems with War Emblem when Victor Espinoza climbs aboard. He says horse and rider are in tune. Espinoza is riding with confidence and War Emblem wants to get in front and stay there.

''Gary and Kent had to have strategies and that made it difficult,'' Baffert said. ''Victor's going to get him out of the gate and he's going to get pulled along for a mile-and-a-half and, hopefully, he's got something left at the end.''

So the feeling is, bring it on.

''This horse has sort of consumed me the last few weeks,'' he said. ''Once they hit the wire, even if it's disappointment, you feel relieved. We'll still go out that night. If we win, we'll go out for the next month.''

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