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Origins of a Derby Superstar

In the spring of 1996, the farmer's son from the Arizona border town of Nogales was no international celebrity, just a 40something trainer bringing a horse for the first time to America's greatest race. When Cavonnier was caught by Grindstone in the last jump of the Kentucky Derby and lost by a nose, Bob Baffert agonized and wondered if he'd ever get that close again.

How little we know.

The past four years have brought the white-haired wise guy a stunning run that rivals anything that the all-conquering D. Wayne Lukas, Baffert's former idol, has ever done. Baffert became the only trainer ever to win the Derby and the Preakness in consecutive years, with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997 and 1998. He has turned out five champions, won three straight Eclipse Awards as leading trainer, topped the nation in earnings three years in a row and taken the world's richest race, the $6-million Dubai World Cup, twice.

Until Silver Charm put him on the national map, Baffert was a high-percentage force on the rugged Southern California circuit. The former quarter-horse trainer did his best work with 2-year-olds and sprinters, and made his biggest splash in the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint with longshot Thirty Slews, a win that "did nothing for my business."

Well, the wind shifted, and business has been booming for quite a while. At 48, Baffert has ascended to an exalted place where there is little margin for error, where the failures draw just as much attention as the triumphs. In a sport where a winning percentage of 25 equals domination, pain is a constant, and Baffert has taken his share of big hits. Twice he narrowly fell short of winning the first Triple Crown since Affirmed in 1978. After Prime Timber, Excellent Meeting and General Challenge couldn't give him an unprecedented third consecutive Derby in 1999, Baffert said, "What are you going to do? You can't win them all."

Not necessarily, especially when you're king of the world. In the first Triple Crown of the millennium, few would be surprised if Baffert managed to go unbeaten. His potential superstar Point Given will be the most touted Derby favorite since Arazi in 1992, and stablemate Congaree has suddenly emerged as the No. 2 contender. If Baffert doesn't win the 127th Run for the Roses, it will be bigger news than if he does.

"I've been there so many times now," he said after Congaree romped April 14 in the Wood Memorial at Aqueduct. "It's not old hat, but I know what I have to do. I still get excited, but I have to keep my senses about me.

"I have the experience behind me, and I feel comfortable that I have two really good horses. It's nice to go hunting for bear with two bullets. We know we're looking good now, but things change from day to day. Between now and the race, we've just got to keep things at the same level, and keep our heads."

Point Given's reputation has grown to match his size. He's a huge colt, 17 hands high and weighing almost 1,300 pounds, a heavyweight champion in the making. Baffert has called him a combination of "an eating machine and a locomotive," and he looks and runs like an iron horse.

"He's just a big kid," Baffert said. "He's growing into a man. He's putting it all together. He has all the ingredients of a great horse."

The son of 1995 Derby and Belmont Stakes winner Thunder Gulch has never been worse than second in seven starts. He has won four stakes and has been unchallenged this season in the Grade II San Felipe and the Grade I Santa Anita Derby.

"Regarding the winner, bet your Triple Crown money," trainer Howard Zucker said after his Crafty C.T. ran a distant second in the Santa Anita Derby. "Point Given is the real thing. If this horse doesn't win the Triple Crown, there's something wrong."

Point Given has been a leading Derby hopeful since November, when he lost by a nose despite an awful trip in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs. "I knew he was a Derby horse last year," Baffert said.

He was high on Congaree but wasn't sure about him until the Wood. The son of '92 Derby bust Arazi ran only once as a 2-year-old, when he was hindered by illness and a knee injury. He's 3-for-3 this year, with a combined margin of 15 3/4 lengths.

"What this horse has done in a very short time is practically unheard of," said Tonja Terranova, a former assistant to Baffert. She and her husband, trainer John Terranova, look after his horses when he ships to New York.

"He came across country and got stuck in traffic for about two hours coming from Newark. Then he runs a race like he did in the Wood Memorial. He is amazing how he has handled everything."

"He's still green and all," Baffert said, "but he's getting better. [The Wood] was probably his hardest race."

The one on the first Saturday in May will be a lot rougher, and no horse with only four lifetime starts has won the Derby since 1918. Baffert bucked that trend in 1998 with the highly regarded Indian Charlie, who finished third and never realized his potential. Baffert also is going against the grain with Point Given, who's a bit light on 3-year-old racing. Not since Sunny's Halo in 1983 has a Derby winner had only two preps at 3.

Besides the experience factor, Baffert's beasts are hard to knock. You can't question their ability.

When asked to rank them, Baffert said, "Who's better? I have no idea. My exercise rider Dana [Barnes] gets on both of them and says they're hard to separate. Congaree has as much talent as Point Given. It's just a question of who wants it more. I think what will separate these two horses is racing luck."

Even if you have the best horse, it's almost impossible to overcome a bad trip and win the Derby. But unless fortune turns on Baffert late on the afternoon of May 5, expect to see him heading to the winner's circle. He knows the way.