Baffert getting look at Pimlico Cavonnier trainer has 'positive vibes'

At 12: 10 p.m. yesterday, on a cool, breezy day at the track, a silver van pulled up to the Pimlico stakes barn.

Handlers led out four horses, nice-looking, glistening animals fit for a photographer's lense. But the photographers weren't interested. They wanted shots only of the fifth horse, the last one off the van.


That would be Cavonnier, the Kentucky Derby runner-up, the likely betting favorite in Saturday's Preakness -- but still something of a mystery to gamblers on the East Coast.

But the California-bred gelding was not looking his shiny best. His hindquarters were smeared with manure.


"He looks good, doesn't he?" deadpanned his trainer Bob Baffert, rolling his eyes, as the cameras followed the muscular, brown gelding down the grassy slope, across the asphalt and into the stakes barn.

After Cavonnier had been hosed down and led into his stall -- the one usually reserved for the Kentucky Derby winner -- Baffert leaned against the white railing around the shedrow and talked, answered questions and cracked jokes until the last reporter drifted away.

"I'm feeling these positive vibes," said Baffert, his shock of white hair almost glowing. "This is exciting for me. Cavonnier and I, this is the first time we've ever been to Baltimore. This is the first time I've been to Pimlico."

Baffert is 43, a former trainer of quarter horses (who sprint a quarter mile down a straight track) and a full-time trainer of thoroughbreds for only five years. He said he was so thrilled being at Pimlico that the first thing he did was walk out to the track to look the place over, the magical place he'd seen on TV all these years.

This short, tanned, trim man has come to Charm City to charm us, make us smile, make us empathize and introduce us to a horse that might entertain thoroughly for just under two minutes, starting about 5: 30 p.m. Saturday.

Although Baffert won the 1992 Breeders' Cup Sprint with Thirty Slews, his first contender in the Triple Crown races is Cavonnier, a late-developing gelding who came within a nose of winning the Kentucky Derby.

The hard-charging Grindstone overcame Cavonnier at the wire in the closest Derby finish since 1959. For nearly five minutes, Churchill Downs' judges worked to determine the winner.

Baffert thought the closing Cavonnier had won. Then he watched a replay and wasn't sure.


"I knew the feeling of winning the Kentucky Derby -- for a minute," Baffert said.

Yesterday, as reporters began asking him about what might haunt him for years, he said: "I was over it -- until you mentioned it right now. From now on, let's not talk about it."

He smiled, then added: "The only thing about the Kentucky Derby is, you run your heart out and . . . "

He pointed out the great disparity between first- and second-place money. Second was $170,000, first a whopping $869,800.

"Now if you'd cut me a check for maybe half of that," Baffert said, "that'd make that loss feel a lot better."

Baffert grew up on a cattle ranch in Arizona, riding range horses as a boy and then his father's quarter horses as a teen-ager. He graduated from the University of Arizona animal-science program.


"I was going to be a vet," he said, "until I took chemistry. That was the end of that.

"Then I joined a fraternity. That didn't help either."

He returned to horses, became a championship quarter-horse trainer and then, in 1991, switched full-time to thoroughbreds. D. Wayne Lukas, thoroughbred racing's best-known trainer, also broke his teeth on quarter horses.

Baffert said he didn't realize he had a possible Triple Crown horse in his stable until Cavonnier, in his 13th start, won the $1 million Santa Anita Derby at 10-to-1 odds. That was his first race at 1 1/8 miles.

"I think the distance helped," Baffert said. "He started growing and got more mature. I won't say he was a puny thing before that, but he was kind of small.

"Now he thinks he's a tough son of a gun."


And then, Cavonnier might have won the 1 1/4 -mile Kentucky Derby except for an incident coming out of the final turn. As his jockey, Chris McCarron, explained:

"I thought I was going to win. He made a move down the backstretch all on his own. Turning for home, I ducked inside. . . and then my horse got hit right across the face by the whip of [Craig Perret, riding Halo Sunshine]. He threw his head, and that didn't do him any good."

The smack was accidental, but Baffert, who has watched countless replays of the race, said it might have determined racing history.

"When you're talking about a nose, I think that was the difference," he said. "Chris said that really jolted the horse, and he had to get him going again."

The day after the Derby, Baffert said, Cavonnier was drained. "He looked like a greyhound," he said, "sucked up pretty good." But Cavonnier recovered, regained his weight and impressed his greeting party yesterday at Pimlico.

The fact that Grindstone, retired because of a knee injury, and Unbridled's Song, out because of a foot injury, will not test Cavonnier in the Preakness does not bother Baffert.


"I wish I was the only horse in the race," he said, smiling. "I just want to win it."

But Baffert -- win, lose or draw -- plans on enjoying his first visit to Charm City.

"I had my very first crab cake last night," he said. "Loved it. I'm usually a meat-and-potato man, but I'm going to live on crab cakes the rest of the week."

Then he got that Baffert glow and said, nodding toward his Preakness hopeful, rinsed off, now clean: "When I get home, I'll look like that horse. They'll have to hose me down."

Pub Date: 5/16/96