ARCADIA, Calif. -- As Jenine Sahadi walked alongside her horse The Deputy before yesterday's Santa Anita Derby, fans lining the paddock screamed her name. They cheered, whistled and wished her luck.
Sahadi smiled. Later she said: "I felt sort of like Julia Roberts -- not because I look like her. But I felt like I was really somebody walking out of the paddock."
A 37-year-old trainer from Southern California, Sahadi had better get used to the feeling. After The Deputy won the $1 million Santa Anita Derby before 41,222 at Santa Anita Park, Sahadi will attract tremendous attention the next four weeks as trainer of the possible Kentucky Derby favorite.
A 3-year-old Irish-bred brought up on turf in England, The Deputy defeated the toughest field assembled for a Kentucky Derby prep so far this year. He overwhelmed the classy filly Surfside around the final turn and then outran the undefeated colt War Chant down the stretch.
As Sahadi made her way toward the winner's circle, the fans cheered her again. But as rival trainer Bob Baffert met his horse, the third-place finisher Captain Steve, the crowd jeered.
"Who trains your horse, Bob?" patrons hollered.
Two days before, the wise-cracking Baffert incited a controversy at the post-position-draw breakfast when he asked jockey Chris McCarron whether he or Sahadi trained The Deputy. Sahadi interpreted the comment as a slap at her ability. She fired back a barb accusing Baffert of having no class.
The response has been overwhelmingly positive in favor of Sahadi. Baffert had insulted colleagues before, but no one had stood up so boldly to him.
"Bob Baffert for some reason can't allow anybody else to have their 15 minutes of fame unless he's involved in it," said Barry Irwin, president of Team Valor, part-owner of The Deputy. "I don't think Jenine's got the problem here. I think he's got the problem. And this isn't the first time he's done it, but maybe it will be the last."
After the race Baffert praised Sahadi's work with The Deputy. He said he hadn't meant to stir up such ill will. The day before Baffert had attempted to apologize to Sahadi on the racetrack apron. But Sahadi turned her back and walked away.
No dispute between trainers could diminish from The Deputy's performance against five other 3-year-olds considered as good as any in the country. Bettors recognized his potential, sending him off at odds of 2-1. War Chart also raced at 2-1, but slightly more had been bet on him.
The Deputy settled quickly into third position just outside the pacesetter Surfside and her early nemesis War Chant. But entering the far turn McCarron and The Deputy launched their charge.
War Chant and then The Deputy blew past Surfside, who faded to fifth. Down the sun-drenched stretch War Chant and The Deputy battled, War Chant along the rail, The Deputy to his outside. Jockey Jerry Bailey lashed at War Chant with his whip, and McCarron cut into the flesh of The Deputy.
The Deputy mustered the greater charge, gaining a one-length advantage at the wire. War Chant claimed second, two lengths ahead of Captain Steve. Anees, Surfside and Cocky completed the order of finish.
The Deputy paid $6.80 and headed a $17.60 exacta and $65.60 trifecta. His time of 1 minute, 49.08 seconds for the 1 1/8 miles was solid on a surface not particularly fast.
For War Chant, this was his first defeat after three impressive victories. His trainer, Neil Drysdale, was pleased with the effort. "All systems are go" for a journey to the Kentucky Derby, Drysdale said.
Baffert said Captain Steve ran well enough for a berth in the Derby, and Alex Hassinger Jr., trainer of Anees, said his colt should relish the Derby's 1 1/4 miles and the Churchill Downs' surface. D. Wayne Lukas, trainer of Surfside, declined to comment on plans for the filly.
The Deputy is obviously headed to Louisville, Ky., for America's greatest race the first Saturday in May. No female trainer has ever won the Derby. Eight have tried. The closest one has come was the Northern California trainer Shelley Riley, who saddled runner-up Casual Lies in 1992.
"I don't really think about that," said Sahadi, who has never run a horse in the Derby but has won two Breeders' Cup races. "I just feel lucky being around a horse like this.
"I really believe in this horse. He's got a bigger heart than any other 3-year-old out there. I know he's going to lay his body down every time, provided I do right by him."