Baffert's Derby prospects

ARCADIA, Calif. -- One of the reasons Bob Baffert rose so quickly through the ranks of Thoroughbred trainers, all the way to the Hall of Fame, is that he relies so much on instincts. Like a quarterback who comes to the line of scrimmage and calls an audible, or a basketball player who feels he's in the groove and launches up shot after shot that hit nothing but net, Baffert's approach to training is far more art than science.

Even though he's a three-time winner of the Kentucky Derby, and has seen what works and what doesn't work in terms of preparation for that race, Baffert has become even more reliant on his instincts this year. It obviously helps that he has a large pool of horses from which to draw, but, by and large, which Baffert 3-year-olds have run in which stakes races this spring have been determined largely by Baffert's intuition.

"It's whoever's doing best that week, whoever is putting up the three-point shot," he said earlier this week. "We nominated everywhere, and ship whoever's doing good."

The horse who got the call this week is Secret Circle, who will return to Oaklawn Park for the Grade 2, $500,000 Rebel Stakes on Saturday. Secret Circle won a division of the Southwest Stakes last month, with the other division going to Baffert-trained Castaway. Instead of also heading back to Oaklawn, though, Castaway will be given another week, and head to Sunland Park for the Grade 3, $800,000 Sunland Derby on March 25.

At the beginning of the year, Baffert's pool of 3-year-old males included Bodemeister, Castaway, Drill, Fed Biz, Liaison, and Sky Kingdom. Drill, though a game winner of the seven-furlong San Vicente, will be kept around one turn because Baffert will resist trying to turn him into something he's not. Baffert's quest for the May 5 Derby also will be made without both Fed Biz and Sky Kingdom, who were taken out of consideration because of minor injuries.

"Like George Bolton says," Baffert said, referring to the owner of Todd Pletcher-trained Spring Hill Farm, who suffered a fractured knee in the Tampa Bay Derby, "the uppercut is just waiting to knock you down."

But Baffert has been able to counter-punch, with both jabs and haymakers.

Bodemeister was being considered for the Sunland Derby following his victory against maidens, but instead was put in last week's San Felipe, in which he finished second. While it might have looked like Bodemeister merely went in the race because Fed Biz came out, in fact Baffert was so enamored with the way Bodemeister was training that he thought it more prudent to run there than wait.

"And I didn't want to ship Bodemeister yet," Baffert said.

Bodemeister still needs a considerable cash infusion in his next race in order to make the Kentucky Derby, which seems certain to once again attract more than 20 entries, thus making the field determined by earnings in graded stakes. Baffert has a philosophical approach to that dilemma.

"If you don't make enough money, you don't belong," he said. "It kind of takes care of itself."

Liaison never really got untracked in the Robert Lewis before eventually losing his rider at midstretch, but he trained so well in subsequent weeks that Baffert thought he would run a better race in the San Felipe, even though Baffert believed before the race that the 1 1/16-mile distance was short of ideal. Liaison goes 1 1/8 miles next time, in either the Santa Anita Derby or the Wood Memorial, the New York race being strongly considered because Baffert thinks Santa Anita might not be as conducive to Liaison's late-running style.

Secret Circle, a son of Eddington, has been, perhaps, the greatest surprise for Baffert. Secret Circle has terrific speed, as evidenced by his victory in the inaugural Breeders' Cup Juvenile Sprint last fall at Churchill Downs, but his win in the one-mile Southwest put him in a new light.

"He might be a Derby horse," Baffert said the day after the Southwest. "He keeps surprising me."

The Rebel, at 1 1/16 miles, is the farthest Secret Circle will have raced to date. He won his first three starts, all in sprints, at Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Churchill Downs. After finishing second to Out of Bounds in the Sham Stakes in his two-turn debut earlier this year, Baffert gave Secret Circle another try at a mile in the Southwest.

"One thing about him is he won't let a horse by him if he can see him," Baffert said. "In the Sham, I don't think he saw that horse until it was too late. He tried to come back at him. Last time, you weren't sure he was going to get it done, but he kept on going. Even at Churchill Downs, he went so fast early in the race, I thought he would fold up like an accordion, but the other horse never got by him."