Baffert hearing Derby call

Last Saturday, he stood in the winner's circle at Hollywood Park with the best looking and most promising prospect to emerge anywhere this year, a long gray bandersnatch that had won handily and galloped out pricking his ears to the beat of "My Old Kentucky Home." This Saturday, the same trainer has four possibilities for the $750,000 CashCall Futurity, a race he has won six times. And Bob Baffert still has at least six more promising prospects in his barn, young horses that could mature and develop into roseate possibilities.

Baffert has become the country's foremost purveyor of Derby dreams. And his stable is brimful for next year. Yes, it's early, very early, to be thinking of next year's Triple Crown, but, frankly, if a trainer isn't already thinking about it, he's not going to get there.

And Baffert, you can be sure, is thinking about it daily. But while he supplies the stuff of Derby dreams and hopes, he tries not to overindulge in them himself, preferring to be, as one of his owners describes him, "a negative Nancy," always looking cautiously ahead for any obstacles or lurking dangers, always declining to accept, as most people do, that the most congenial interpretation of events could be the most plausible.

"You have to keep them healthy," Baffert said about his many prospects. "That's the main thing." And you never know, he said, if you have a Derby horse until they stretch out.

But even Baffert, forever cautious, allowed himself to be impressed with Flashback, the fey gray who won his debut Saturday at Hollywood Park. Flashback raced a few lengths off a lively pace, 45.11 seconds for the opening half-mile, and advanced four-wide in the turn. When he felt jockey Julien Leparoux's left-handed whip, Flashback kicked into gear and surged to the lead, going on to win handily by more than three lengths.

Flashback completed the seven-eighths of a mile in 1:23.09 over a surface that was rather dull. To put that clocking in perspective, a couple races earlier, Husband's Folly, a nice 4-year-old who has earned $105,262 in his career, won an allowance-optional claimer in 1:23.92 for the seven furlongs. In other words, a 2-year-old making his debut and winning handily ran about four lengths faster than an accomplished older horse.

"This horse could be really special," Baffert said about Flashback, who's a full-brother to Zazu, a standout filly who never failed to earn a paycheck, finishing third in the Kentucky Oaks and winning the Hollywood Oaks, Las Virgenes, and Lady's Secret while earning nearly $700,000.

Yes, it was just a maiden victory, but it was so impressive, and Flashback is so prepossessing, his length and stride and pedigree all insisting that he'll only improve with more distance, that he immediately jumps to the top of the class. Yes, it's early, very early, but if you're not thinking about it now, you won't get there, and the flashy gray has a trainer who thinks about it daily: Even though he has much to prove, based on his potential, Flashback is the top Triple Crown prospect in the country.

Baffert said he has no plans for the colt's next start. "We'll just let him tell us what he wants to do," the trainer said.

And in the meantime, Baffert has plenty to keep him busy. Saturday he'll send out four more prospects in the CashCall Futurity, the last opportunity of the year for 2-year-olds to earn qualifying points for next year's Kentucky Derby: Really Mr. Greely, Carving, Den's Legacy and Title Contender.

Really Mr. Greely won the recent Hollywood Prevue. A two-time stakes winner, Carving also has won over the Hollywood surface, taking the recent Real Quiet Stakes. Not originally nominated, Carving will be supplemented to the CashCall at a cost of $30,000. Den's Legacy won the Generous Stakes on the turf, and in his stakes debut Title Contender finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Back in the barn, Baffert has such promising youngsters as Super Ninety Nine and Shakin It Up, who chased Really Mr. Greely home in the Prevue; and War Academy, a debut winner – "He can really run," Baffert said -- who missed a week of training because of illness. As for Power Broker, the winner of the FrontRunner Stakes who finished fifth after a mugging in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, he needs to put on some weight, Baffert said, and so will get some time off, possibly returning to competition in March.

And the prospects just keep coming. In a maiden race Saturday, Baffert will send out two more promising youngsters to make their debut: Battled, a $300,000 purchase who has been Flashback's workmate; and Tiz The Truth, a half-brother to Notional, a stakes winner of $733,240.

Eventually, they'll spread out, of course, these many Triple Crown prospects that seem to leap out of the Baffert barn like rabbits from a magician's hat, and they'll travel to take their places on the various roads that all converge on Churchill Downs and a May adventure in Kentucky. At this point, it's impossible to say which ones will be there or whether the gray bandersnatch will keep his promises, made so forcefully last Saturday, because it's early, very early, but Baffert's already thinking about it, and he'll be there.