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Blistering works for Point Given, Congaree

Baffert lodging no complaints

LOUISVILLE, Ky. - There are some better, fancier hotels in downtown Louisville than the Executive West, the popular Kentucky Derby-week hotel a couple of miles from Churchill Downs.
Bob Baffert
Trainer Bob Baffert will start likely favorites Point Given and Congaree this weekend in the Kentucky Derby.
But the Executive West treats Bob Baffert like the celebrity trainer he is, and the two-time winner of the Derby, who'll saddle favorites Point Given and Congaree in next Saturday's race, likes the handy location. He has stayed at the Executive from the time of his first Derby, the near-miss second-place finish with Cavonnier in 1996, right on through victories with Silver Charm and Real Quiet in 1997-98.

Some racetrackers have quit the Executive West in favor of other hotels. The Daily Racing Form's Derby coverage team, unhappy with the Executive last year, moved around the corner this time.

Sometimes even Baffert wonders why he continues to stay at the Executive. The other day, looking for a wall outlet to recharge his cell phone, Baffert bent down and saw a sticky piece of cardboard on the floor.

"It was the kind of stuff they use to catch mice," Baffert said. "You figure, if that's there, then there must be mice. Yucky. But at least there wasn't a mouse in it."

The Executive has named rooms after Baffert's Derby winners. On the fifth floor is the Silver Charm Suite, and the Real Quiet Suite is on the second floor. This year, Baffert is staying in the Real Quiet Suite.

Point Given, the Santa Anita Derby winner and Congaree, who won the Wood Memorial, will be playing a cat-and-mouse game with 14 to 16 probable opponents at Churchill Downs. Baffert anticipates that Congaree will be keeping company with Balto Star, the obvious speed in the 1 1/4-mile race, in the run down the backstretch, and after that he's hoping for one of two scenarios: That Congaree has enough stamina left to master Churchill's daunting 1,234-foot stretch, or that Point Given, who should be running in the second tier of horses early, will sweep by the leaders and give the 48-year-old trainer his third Derby win.

Baffert already owns this town. Parking spaces at restaurants have his name on them. Barn 33 at Churchill Downs is where all the tour groups want to go first. Churchill Downs has nailed big signs to the wall of the barn, noting the wins in the Derby--and the Preakness, the second leg of the Triple Crown--by Silver Charm and Real Quiet. "It is easier to get in restaurants," Baffert said.

At 7 a.m. Sunday, Baffert pulled up to his barn in a $50,000 Jaguar, on loan to him from a local dealer. Stablehands, under the direction of No. 1 assistant Jim Barnes, had already been at work a couple of hours. Point Given and Congaree would not go out for morning gallops, to set them up for their final pre-Derby workouts today, until after Baffert had arrived. He had spent Saturday in Texas, where his odds-on favorite, Wooden Phone, ran a disappointing fourth as Dixie Dot Com won the Texas Mile Stakes at Lone Star Park.

"I showed up to help [Lone Star] out," Baffert said. "They're relatively new and they can use the exposure. Racing needs all the help it can get. Too bad we didn't win the race too, but as many horses as we run--many of them favorites--it can't be Christmas every day. We tried to buy Dixie Dot Com last year, for $1 million, but they wouldn't sell."

Some New Yorkers thought that Baffert was a muted winner after Congaree beat Monarchos, the Florida Derby winner, by 2 3/4 lengths in the Wood. It was a big win for a colt making only his fourth start, yet Baffert wasn't his usual bells-and-whistles self. "We're still driven to win these races," Baffert said. "There's nothing like winning a Derby. If you'd win the Triple Crown [the Derby, the Preakness and the Belmont Stakes], that would be icing on the cake, but the Derby is the main deal."

Baffert's Derby-Preakness winners came up short in the Belmont, Touch Gold beating Silver Charm and Real Quiet losing by inches to Victory Gallop.

Sometimes, at Churchill Downs, Baffert's mind is on his ailing mother, who lives in Nogales, Ariz., a town of about 20,000 just across the international border from Mexico. Ellie Baffert, who was born in Nogales and married her high school sweetheart, complained about a cough when she was at Santa Anita in mid-March for Point Given's win in the San Felipe Stakes. Later she was diagnosed with a kidney disease. Baffert is hoping that his mother, who'll be 79 in June, won't have to go through dialysis. Ahmed Salman, a Saudi Arabian prince who bred and races Point Given, has introduced a Pittsburgh kidney specialist, one of the best in the country, to treat Ellie Baffert.

Both Bill and Ellie Baffert, who had six other children besides Bob, are scheduled to arrive here later this week.

"I hope she's able to come," Bob Baffert said. "It's kind of thrown a monkey wrench into the situation."

Bill Baffert, who trained and raced horses, mainly bred and sold Aberdeen Angus show cattle. He bought his ranch in Nogales four months before Bob Baffert was born. Bill Baffert introduced Bob to the Kentucky Derby, making an annual occasion of watching the race on TV in Nogales. Baffert remembers watching the Derby for the first time when he was 10 or 11 years old.

It would not seem likely, to look at Baffert now, but as a teenager, after school, he rode quarter horses in match races--for a long time without his mother knowing.

"She was a worrywart, she was so concerned that something would happen, and we kept it from her for as long as we could," Baffert said. "One day she saw my name in the paper, when I was supposed to ride a horse in Tucson, and we told her that it was a mistake, that I should have been listed as the trainer instead."

In one race, Baffert's stirrup broke and he went down. There was kidney damage, and blood showed up in his urine. The family tried to get him to the hospital without his mother knowing.

Ellie Baffert called her son last Saturday in Texas.

"Do you know Nick Zito?" she asked.

"Yeah, I know him," Baffert said, referring to another successful trainer. "I see him on TV sometimes," his mother said. "He is always brushing and bathing his horses. What's that all about? I never see you doing any of that."

"I've got great help, mom," the Kentucky Derby-winning trainer said.

Copyright 2001 Los Angeles Times