Baffert counting on Zensational finish
The Hall of Fame trainer puts his success down to good fortune – but as Saturday's Breeders' Cup Sprint may well prove again, luck does not come into it, reports Chris McGrath from Santa Anita
Thursday 05 November 2009
Who you lookin' at? You know who you lookin' at. Same as everybody else. There he is, in the shades and silver hair. This is his turf.
Scrambled eggs, sliced tomato, avocado slices, bacon. That's your "Bob Baffert" down at Clockers' Corner.
If he's not there, having a Bob Baffert, go to his barn. It is not difficult to find, among the warren of stabling, the palms and acacias. On the walls are fastened 14 plaques. Silver Charm, 1997 Kentucky Derby. Trainer: Bob Baffert. Real Quiet, 1998 Kentucky Derby. Trainer: Bob Baffert. And so on. This is the place.
Two of the plaques look fresher than the rest, commemorating the Breeders' Cup wins, a year ago, of Midnight Lute and Midshipman. They took Baffert's career tally at the meeting to seven, a tally exceeded only by Shug McGaughey, with nine, and Wayne Lukas, with a bewildering 18.
Back in the spring, Lukas himself formally inducted Baffert into the Hall of Fame. Giving a good horse to Baffert, Lukas said, is like giving Elvis a good song. Baffert's own speech was highly emotional. "To end up here, you have to be either really, really good, or really, really lucky," he said tearfully. "And you're lookin' at lucky."
Except you're not. On Saturday, Baffert saddles two hot favourites at the 26th Breeders' Cup. There is Zensational, in the Sprint, and then there is the young colt, Lookin At Lucky no less, who tests his potential to become Baffert's fourth Derby winner in the Juvenile.
And of course luck has nothing to do with it. For make no mistake, at 56 Baffert has more or less had to re-invent himself. Three years ago, when the Californian racecourses began the mandatory replacement of their dirt tracks, they took the carpet from under Baffert's feet. Here was a dirt master, a man whose horses were all speed, all action. And now he was expected to deal with these peculiar new synthetic surfaces, so inimical to dirt horses that last year the Breeders' Cup Classic itself was won, for the first time, by a British interloper.
At first, Baffert raged impotently against the changes. When Del Mar became the first to make the switch, in 2007, Baffert's stable froze in the Pacific sunshine. Was he finished? It has happened to other big names, more or less overnight. Not for the first time, however, Baffert took a step back and figured things out afresh. Remember he had started out with quarter horses, arriving from Arizona in 1976 with "four horses and a goat worth more than all of them". So for him to win those two Breeders' Cup last year was a defining gesture – the moment a usurped king reclaimed his dominion. Last Sunday, he won four races here, sewing up the trainers' title for the meeting. "While it's here, I just have to deal with it," he shrugs. "So I quit fighting it."
That is not to say that he has come round to the revolution. "You don't know what kinda horse you really have," he grumbles. "It takes the brilliance away from some horses. It's more turfy, the speed is not holding. That counts against a horse like Zensational, against the really fast horses. These surfaces, they're not made for southern California. With all this sunshine, this track needs a lot of water. But it's changed the last month. It's playing more like dirt. I think the track manager has finally got a handle on it."
If so, he would not be the only one. And in its hour of need, with the connections of the brilliant Rachel Alexandra sulkily refusing to run her on "plastic", the Breeders' Cup is grateful to have Baffert back in his pomp. Instead the marquee name in the Classic belongs to Zenyatta, who puts her immaculate record on the line against the colts. "They deserve a big hand for doing that," Baffert says. "That's pretty gutsy. I hate to run against her [with the 20-1 shot, Richard's Kid] but for racing it's huge. And if we're gonna get beat, I don't mind getting beat by Zenyatta. I'm just glad I'm part of it."
He would be disappointed to be confined to a supporting role, however, with Zensational – winner of three consecutive Grade One dashes and rated by his trainer among the very best he has had. His one concern is a draw, hard against the rail, which will require Zensational to use a lot of gas early.
"We need just one thing," Baffert said. "And that's an act of God. We'll have to let him roll early, and find out what he's made of. He just has one speed, and that's pedal to the metal. And all the speed horses are together, 1-2-3, so if they hook up, you know, and go with me, it could be disastrous. But that's horseracing, you can't worry about stuff like that. We'll see how far he can take 'em. You know, he's incredibly fast. He's going to have to dig down. But that's what championship racing is all about. Everybody wants to see that freaky type of performance."
Lookin At Lucky, conversely, has been trapped on the wide outside in the Juvenile. "Good job he has power steering," Baffert said. "He is tractable. He'll lose some ground. But he's a good horse. He reminds me a lot of Silver Charm, except with a great pedigree. He does things effortlessly, all he wants to do is win."
The effortlessness is an illusion, of course, no less than in his elaborately cool trainer. They have a common spur. That will to win burns so fiercely in Baffert that he dares not think back 10 years, when he arrived in Florida with eight big chances. They all got wiped out. "That was a long day," he says. "But I think I'm an older trainer now, and a better trainer. You want to at least win one. You don't want to get the big doughnut. But I've taken a different approach the last few years, and it seems to be working."
So here's lookin' at you, lucky. Because you are really, really good.
Turf account: Chris McGrath
Alfatrix (3.15 Towcester) Promise in all three starts over fences, not least on reappearance here, and looks guaranteed to enjoy extra distance this time.
Spitfire (2.20 Lingfield) Returned from a break with encouraging effort over a mile last time, and likely to be suited by stronger pace over this trip.
*One to watch
Vertigo On Course (R A Fahey) remains lightly raced since arriving from Ireland and is poised to improve again.
*Where the money's going
Somersby is 20-1 with Coral for the Irish Independent Arkle Trophy after winning his first steeplechase at Warwick yesterday.
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