Silver Charm, winner of the Kentucky Derby, began picking up speed yesterday on the Pimlico backstretch. This was his final major workout before trying to glean the second jewel of the Triple Crown, the Preakness, on Saturday.
It wasn't the stretch run of the Derby, but a strenuous training session by a valuable horse is usually enough to make a trainer a little tense.
But standing in the morning sunlight on a terrace at Pimlico, Bob Baffert, the loosey-goosey trainer of Silver Charm, turned to the handful of reporters and said:
"Will you guys hum 'My Old Kentucky Home' for me?' " Baffert said. "We've got to get pumped up here."
After someone pointed out that this was the Preakness, not the Kentucky Derby, Baffert said: "What do they sing here? 'My Old Black-Eyed Susan?' "
As Silver Charm broke into stride at nearly full speed, Baffert glanced at his stopwatch and spoke into his two-way radio. That is how he communicates last-minute instructions to Joe Steiner, the exercise rider on Silver Charm's back.
"Thirteen, pick it up," Baffert said, meaning Silver Charm ran one-eighth of a mile in 13 seconds.
"Twelve," Baffert said into the radio after the second eighth. " Let him finish up the last eighth. Tap him on the shoulder."
Steiner sat motionless astride the colt. He did not tap him on the shoulder. Silver Charm did not finish up as Baffert wanted.
Baffert checked his radio and cursed.
"We bring these radios all this way, and then somebody plays with mine," he said. "The batteries are dead. I wanted him to finish up a little bit, but he couldn't even hear me."
Oh well, Baffert shrugged. He headed back to the stakes barn to meet his horse, saying as he parted: "This training, it's tough, isn't it?"
It's tougher than Baffert makes it seem. It has to be. He's the
wise-cracking, easygoing, white-haired, 44-year-old from California who in six years of training thoroughbreds full-time has ascended to the top of his profession.
Ten days ago, he won the Kentucky Derby with Silver Charm. Last year, his Cavonnier lost the Derby by a nose in a heart-wrenching photo finish. Baffert fell a nose short of becoming only the sixth trainer to win the nation's greatest race two years in a row.
With the first thoroughbred he ever bought at auction, Thirty Slews, he won the Breeders' Cup Sprint. With the first 2-year-old-in-training he bought, Broadway's Top Gun, he won numerous stakes races.
"Accidents like that don't happen," said Mike Pegram, one of the main owners who supplies Baffert with horses. "He's got an eye for picking out horses like nobody else has.
"I relate it to a Little League team. You've got 12 kids now, and you know eight have no shot. But you don't know which of the LTC other four will go on to be a good athlete. Bob's got the knack for picking out the one from the four."
After that, Baffert said yesterday: "I'm constantly working. You've got to keep pressing and pressing in this business. I'm always looking to restock the pond."
He also takes care to race his horses only when they're sound and to place them in races where they have a good chance of winning.
"He knows when to run, and he knows where to run," said Gary Stevens, the jockey of Silver Charm. "When I'm riding a horse of his I know it's a very, very live horse."
And Baffert hires good help, pays them well and frequently asks for their advice. But in the end, it's his show, and he directs it.
"When he tells you to do something, you'd better do it," said Larry Damore, the rider who gallops Baffert's horses in the mornings. "There is that very serious side to him. But he's real fun to work with. He mixes it up just right."
Pegram, one of Baffert's closest friends, put it this way: "Bob is like a kid in a lot of ways. He works hard and gets the job done. But when he's finished, he ain't afraid to take a day off."
When the reporters gather, as they always do when Baffert's around, "Bob puts his game face on," Pegram said. Baffert breaks into his mischievous grin, and the one-liners start flying.
Asked how Silver Charm tolerated the flight after the Derby from Louisville to Baltimore, Baffert said: "I don't know. He wouldn't tell me."
When Touch Gold, the most threatening of the fresh horses entered in the Preakness, walked by after galloping on the track, everyone fell silent and watched. Baffert broke the stillness by shouting to the exercise rider: "How'd he go?"
The rider looked at him as if he'd just arrived from Mars. She timidly signaled thumbs up.
"You're supposed to go thumbs down," Baffert said.
He lowered his voice and said: "I was hoping he wouldn't come. He's a tough customer. He lacks a little seasoning, though."
Baffert's devilish attitude is a throwback to his days as a quarter-horse trainer, he said. You trained the horses to "run like hell" for a quarter mile, he said, and then, win, lose or draw, you went out and had a good time.
That still holds. Stevens, Silver Charm's jockey, said of the 12 Kentucky Derbys in which he has ridden, this was the most relaxed and fun because of Baffert.
"When he gave me a leg up, he said, 'God, I'm glad I'm not riding the s.o.b.,' " Stevens said. "That's just his attitude. Whatever happens we're going to wake up in the morning, so go out and have fun."
After growing up on a cattle ranch in Arizona and riding ("I was a riding fool -- heavy on the fool") and training a few quarter horses for his father, Baffert decided he wanted to become a veterinarian.
"But I took a few chemistry classes," he said, "and that took care of that."
He taught school for a couple of years, but then gravitated back toward horses. He started training quarter horses again, and after a few years soared to the top of the sport.
"I thought it couldn't get any better than that," he said.
But then his friend, Pegram, urged him to switch to thoroughbreds, and Baffert did in 1989. He held onto his quarter horses until he proved to himself, in 1991, that he could make a living in the highly competitive world of thoroughbreds. He's not surprised at his success because he works so hard, he said.
"But winning the Kentucky Derby was something I never dreamed about," he said. "I was in quarter horses, and winning a Kentucky Derby was about as likely as playing quarterback for a team in the NFL."
Or throwing out the first ball at an Orioles' game -- as he did Friday night as the winning trainer of the Kentucky Derby.
"I feel so blessed, and so fortunate," Baffert said. "I must have gotten reminded a zillion times that I'd lost the Derby by a nose. And then to get back so quick, and to win it, I mean, that's incredible.
"People keep asking me how I'm feeling, and I tell them: I feel great. You've got to enjoy the moment as it comes. You might never be back."
Pub Date: 5/13/97